Les Misérables – Film Review

A film by Ladj Ly
103 minutes, MA15+
In French with subtitles

Don’t expect stirring singing and beguiling gamins in this contemporary French take on the degradations and social misery of the immigrant communities of Paris, specifically Montfermeil, the suburban area where Victor Hugo set his 18th century novel. Do expect to be confronted by this film, which can best be described by the clichéd term gritty.

The story is that Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) has recently joined the Anti-Crime Squad for this area, working with experienced members of the team, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). It’s a baptism of fire as he sees first-hand the tensions between rival gangs. The awful conditions for the children are highlighted and it is this that leads to a crisis during the film and the horrific denouement.

Inspired by the 2005 Paris riots and by Ladj Ly’s short film of the same name, this iteration is a grimy, hard-hitting insight into the tensions between the neighbourhoods and the police. Interestingly and disturbingly, there are strong parallels with the current US situation.

In this film almost everyone is a bad guy. I felt a deep sense of sadness over the lost childhoods of so many young people and the depths to which both figures of ‘authority’ and community leaders sank to survive.  We are somewhat encouraged by Stephane’s determination to do better, but the confronting ending of this film leaves us doubting how much one person can achieve in the face of so many deep-rooted problems.

Re-imagining this classic story of class, race and injustice as a police drama is an interesting take. Certainly it makes it accessible to a 21st century young audience. It’s pacy, raw and frequently violent, always a powerful statement of the Director’s personal knowledge and experience of these Paris banlieus, les Bosquets. Do we go away with any sort of hopefulness? I don’t think so, but there is a question hanging at the end.

Les Misérables is at Palace Electric Canberra and selling fast.

Thanks to Annette from ned & co marketing and publicity for private access to this film.