Cannes Film Fest 2019: Les Miserables–Ladj Ly’s Provocative, Socially Relevant Tale of Parisian Mean Streets

Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of poverty and revolt in 19th century France is not given an update or an adaptation in Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables, a provocative, socially relevant feature, premiered in competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Fest.

In his striking feature debut, which impresses as a personal, first-person observation, Ly has expanded his previous short, which had the same subject, cast and title.

The tale is set in the director’s native banlieue of Montfermeil, which is also the setting for parts of Hugo’s famous novel, which continues to intrigue filmmakers, lending itself to both seriously dramatic and also musical versions.

Unfolding as a gritty policier, it’s an ultra-realistic urban thriller that reflects terrible current state of one Parisian poor suburb, ready to explode in anger and violent riots at the smallest provocation.

This tale of marginal lives, largely immigrants in lower class tenements, bears resemblance to La Haine (Hate), which the director has cited as a source of inspiration.

Les Miserables was written by Ly, Giordano Gederlini and co-star Alexis Manenti)

The tense plot takes place in a single “typical” day, centering on the “routine” work of a three-man crime unit patrolling Montfermeil’s mean streets and housing projects.

The team consists of vet squad leader Chris (Manenti), aka “the Pink Pig,” a cop who operates outside the law, proudly exclaiming at one point, “I’m the law.”

Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a more guarded local, usually follows Chris’ orders. Then there’s the rookie Stephane (Damien Bonnard) aka “Greaser,” transferred over from Cherbourg in order to be closer to his son.  As the trio’s most intelligent member, Stephane serves as the tale’s moral conscience.

The neighborhood is located only an hour east of Paris most famous touristic site, Eiffel Tower. Organized criminal hierarchy rules the turf, with cliques fighting and  competing for territory.

We get a portrait of a marginal neighborhood , including the kids left to their own devices on the street, wheelers and dealers,  the gypsies running a traveling circus, to the Muslim Brotherhood members trying to impose their religious order.

Yung thief Issa (the moving Issa Perica) steals a baby lion from the circus and thus ignites a gang war between the gypsies, led by Zorro (Raymond Lopez), and the locals, led by the crime boss of a “Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu). When Gwada shoots a gun and nearly takes Issa’s eye out, the crisis escalates rapidly.

But the strengths of Les Miserables are not in its plot (which could have served an American TV series), but in its focused attention on the characters and the ambience that define this inflammatory neighborhood.