Before talking about Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, it may be necessary to talk about Ladj Ly himself. I hadn’t heard of this filmmaker, and from his interviews, he comes across like a Parisian incarnation of Pa. Ranjith. In October 2005, two teenagers from a suburb of impoverished immigrants died while fleeing the police. Their headline-making deaths resulted in a three-week crisis, with riots everywhere, and Ly roamed the streets with his camera, recording the anger of these underprivileged people. He first shaped these events into a documentary (also titled Les Misérables), and this feature – Ly’s first – expands on this narrative. “French cinema is very closed; it’s reserved for a certain elite. You can count the black filmmakers on one hand,” he said. His mission is to capture the reality of these neglected Parisian suburbs. “I’ve had enough of other people telling our story for us.”
Clashes between the police and public aren’t new to cinema, but like Pa. Ranjith shows in his films, the divide is also that of class and what passes for a caste hierarchy in these neighbourhoods.
He could be talking about Mathieu Kassovitz, whose La Haine (1995) opened with news footage of riots in the suburbs. But Ly is actually a fan. This is the film that inspired him to become a filmmaker. (Other influences are Spike Lee, Jacques Audiard and documentarian Raymond Depardon.) Les Misérables, which is a part of the official Competition, is the story of three policemen – two Caucasians (named Chris and Stéphane) and a man of African descent (Gwada) – who clash with the residents of one of those suburbs during the events of 2005. And no, it has nothing to do with the Victor Hugo novel of the same name. But there’s a connection: Part of Hugo’s story takes place in Montfermeil, the working-class suburb where Ly was born and raised. “A century later, there’s still misery in this area,” Ly says. “Police violence remains a factor.”
The opening stretch gives little indication of the tensions that lie ahead. We see the Caucasians and Africans celebrating France’s participation in the World Cup. But soon, as Stéphane (who has just joined Montfermeil’s Anti-Crime Squad) is given a neighbourhood tour, we hear about how “the Nigerians” have made prostitution the new plague. And it goes on. The unity we saw in the World Cup scenes is nowhere to be found. When one of the boys takes off with a lion cub belonging to a visiting circus, the cops employ rough methods to track him down – and all of this is captured by a drone camera, which means, very soon, le shit hits le fan. Clashes between the police and public aren’t new to cinema, but like Pa. Ranjith shows in his films, the divide is also that of class and what passes for a caste hierarchy in these neighbourhoods. (Also, Ly is part of Kourtrajmé, a filmmaking collective whose aims are similar to those of Ranjith’s Neelam Productions.)
Ly allows the story to build and build and build, all way to the explosion in the sensational last stretch set in one of the neighbourhood buildings. The face-off between the cops and the residents is breathtakingly filmed (Julien Poupard is the cinematographer) in the common areas – if you’ve imagined what a full-scale riot would look like if staged around corridors and stairwells, this is it. The message is not new. Violence begets violence. Or, as the Victor Hugo quote at the end puts it: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” But the forceful filmmaking – with an ending that leaves you hanging from a cliff – blows past these clichés, leaving you with the kind of adrenaline rush you expect from multi-million dollar Hollywood action adventures.
Let me give you an example. The scene where the cops walk into a diner is not even an action scene. It’s a confrontation. But the way it’s shot, staged, edited makes it almost a set piece. Watch Stéphane when the hotheaded Chris moves past him to confront the manager. Usually, a reaction shot is given to us when the person doing the reacting is facing us. But here, Stéphane has his back to us, and his face is in profile. As Chris passes him, he has just a second to show us what he’s feeling: “Jesus, is Chris going to fuck it all up? Is he going to make this already messy situation even messier?” That second turns out to be enough. We register the emotion, the reaction, through a corner of Stéphane’s eye. Ly told Variety, “I thought maybe there was a small, small chance of getting into the Directors’ Fortnight, but the Competition — wow!” He deserves it.
The Un Certain Regard section opened with Monia Chokri’s A Brother’s Love, which takes well-established American sitcom beats and filters them through a kind of genteel, off-kilter Louis Malle-François Truffaut sensibility. If you think that sounds odd, wait till you see the film, a kinda-sorta “love triangle” between a man, his sister, and the woman the man falls in love with. The comedy and the drama go to places American movies wouldn’t dream of going, though there’s no actual incest – at least, not the physical kind. The enjoyable film is way too long, but two things keep us watching: Anne-Elisabeth Bossé’s strident performance as the obnoxiously overbearing sister, and Chokri’s direction, which is a mix of entertainingly weird camera angles and sharp editing choices and bouncy pop songs and scabrous Kim Kardashian jokes. The result feels rough and filled with a sense of discovery, less like an overplotted soap than life itself.