By Daniel Lammin
10th January 2020

While most of the world think of it as the popular musical, Victor Hugo's novel 'Les Misérables' is one of France's most revered and beloved cultural achievements. Through its enormous cast of characters and epic scope, it paints a damning portrait of a crippling class system, where the poor are left to suffer and figures of authority routinely fail them, before desperation and fury bring about violent collapse. For the French, 'Les Misérables' is in their bones; a foundation stone for what they understand about themselves. In 2017, director Ladj Ly used the novel as a basis for a short film, now expanded into his first feature film. Rather than getting swept up in its romanticism though, Ly taps into the anger at the heart of the novel and uses it as a starting point for exploring what France is today, particularly for a person of colour.

Set over the course of one day in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil (where Hugo wrote the novel), 'Les Misérables' follows police officer Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) on his first day on the Anti-Crime Brigade, along with fellow officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). The population of Montfermeil is mostly poor and people of colour of various cultures, and there is a complex criminal power structure within the area that Stéphane has to get his head around. Their job is dangerous, but Stéphane finds himself uncomfortable with Chris and Gwada's methods of dealing with it, and when a situation gets horrifically out of hand, the three men find themselves in the firing line of potential violence that could break at any moment.


Due to the ever-worsening refugee crisis in Europe, it seems fitting that Ly should channel his concerns around class and race into a basic framework as classic as here in 'Les Misérables'. What is most surprising about the film though is that Ly and fellow screenwriters Alexis Manenti and Giordano Gederlini approach the film like a relatively straightforward police procedural. For a large portion of its running time, the film is the best episode of 'Law and Order' you've ever seen, and that isn't to diminish the skill of the film at all. That format allows for juggling multiple narratives and a vast collection of distinct characters, moving between them seamlessly as the plot requires. There's a tremendous economy to the storytelling, moving at a cracking pace and with clear characterisation across the board. There's also a profound emotional and thematic weight to it, especially around the many children that play major parts of the narrative, but it's also unexpectedly entertaining, built around an initial crime caper premise that's wild but careful to stay away from being too ridiculous.

This allows Ly to spend time with the many cultural and religious groups that make up the lower classes of Paris, and to give each the time and respect they deserve within the film. Judgement of any character comes from their actions rather than their backgrounds, and this expends to the police. Where Stéphane represents a patient and progressive attitude, Chris in particular captures a dangerous frustration and a sickening love of power that still makes up an uncomfortable portion of law enforcement. 'Les Misérables' is a film constantly positioned on a knife's edge, threading to tip into violence at any moment, but the advantage that Ly has by lending the film a mostly conventional structure is that he's able to keep tight control over it. It's also a film bursting with life and humour, all the more thrilling in how well it is mixed with the danger.

'Les Misérables' is a film constantly positioned on a knife's edge, threading to tip into violence at any moment...

I've not been overly fond of French cinema over the past few decades, tired of middle-class white people contending again and again with the same vapid concerns around their privilege. This film feels fresh and alive, capturing the non-white and non-middle-class experience that celebrates it without forgetting the injustice at the heart of it. It feels constantly alive and constantly electric, filled with strong and dynamic performances across the board. Ly isn't afraid of the melodrama, and makes it work next to the social realism captured by cinematographer Julien Poupard.

There's a palpable building of tension in 'Les Misérables', especially once the central act of violence is committed, setting the film towards what seems to be an inevitable calamitous climax. When that moment comes - when the thematic, emotional and narrative tension of the film finally do crack open - Ly unleashes a sequence of such startling cinematic fury that I was thrown back in my seat in shock. For the most part, 'Les Misérables' controls its anger, but this is only so that, when it allows the release, it can strike with maximum impact. I was already greatly impressed by this film, but the power of its final act and the place from where it comes elevates the film even closer to greatness.

There was surprise when France chose to submit 'Les Misérables' as their entry for Best International Film at the upcoming Academy Awards rather than Céline Sciamma's beloved 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire', but the decision makes a certain degree of sense. Where 'Portrait' is a timeless instant classic that speaks to the ongoing human condition, Ladj Ly's debut film is so immediate and vital for where France, and indeed Europe, find themselves now. Just as in Victor Hugo's novel, they are on the brink of a massive cultural and political collapse, a crisis that will define their future as a multicultural and economic society. Its mostly conventional structure and approach make it far more accessible than you expect, but this is never at the expense of its intelligence or intention. 'Les Misérables' is a remarkable, electrifying and ultimately shattering film, a stellar debut for Ladj Ly, and most importantly, a work that feels necessary - not just for France, but for those that created it and those who see it. It's a thrilling act of cinematic protest.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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