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(Updated April 20)



Les Misérables

2019 Oscar nominee ~ Best International Film

A cop’s-eye drama of real class and poise, Les Misérables brings nuance to the racial tinderbox of Paris’s impoverished banlieues. Don’t be misled by the title: Victor Hugo’s epic tale of revolutionary fervour is only referenced in passing, although its themes are a source of loose inspiration. This is no rabble-rousing period piece but a vivid dissection of modern-day France’s social ills that’s juiced up with some smart acting, tense stand-offs and a pervasive sense of despair.

Poster for the not-Victor-Hugo urban thriller Les MisérablesThe film actually opens in a place of hope, with Parisians united in joy over the country’s 2018 World Cup win and celebrating in the streets. Yet the line between street party and full-blown riot feels pretty porous, even here.

In the middle of the giddy mêlée is Issa (Issa Perica), a young Muslim kid from a notorious housing project in eastern Paris – Les Bosquets – and a key figure in what happens later. The huge ‘60s housing projects he calls home were set ablaze for real during the city’s 2005 riots and director Ladj Ly, a local to the area introduces us to this greying slab of a ghost town, annexed by petty criminals and dealers.

We meet a trio of contrasting cops who patrol the area together: the bull-headed Chris (Alexis Manenti), the mellower Gwada (Djibril Didier Zonga) and a new team member Stéphane (Damien Bonnard). Beneath the banter and razzing, bad feeling builds between Chris and Stéphane. The cops flatter themselves that they’re respected, but Chris’s brutality and casual racism has eroded whatever goodwill might have existed. Improbably, a missing lion cub lights a fuse the trio must desperately try to extinguish.

La Haine is an obvious touchpoint for what follows, with its blistering vision of the simmering banlieues and its punky energy, as is Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Ly brings depth to his characters, from the cops to the kids to a reformed Islamic radical called Salah (Almamy Kanouté), who hands out gnomic advice and free kebabs and offers the cops an unlikely ally in trying to keep the peace.

Les Misérables is a hugely impressive debut and visually arresting from first to last. When Ly’s camera takes to the skies in the film’s impactful drone shots, the concrete wasteland below takes on the eerie appearance of a graveyard. But the only dream anyone is dreaming in this ‘Les Mis’ is to get out before it all goes up in flames.

– Phil De Semylen, Time Out

Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) vient d’obtenir sa mutation de Cherbourg à Montfermeil où il intègre la Brigade Anti-Criminalité (BAC). C’est son premier jour, et pour le mettre dans l’ambiance, ses collègues Chris (Alexis Manenti) et Gwada (Djibril Didier Zonga) lui font faire le ‘tour du proprio’. L’affaire tourne mal lors d’une confrontation entre les habitants et les Tziganes d’un cirque auxquels on a volé un lionceau de la ménagerie. La petite tête brûlée qui l’a subtilisé est interpellée, mais sérieusement blessée lors de l’opération. Chris, à la tête de la brigade, tient absolument à étouffer la bavure, alors que l’incident a été filmé par un drone, ce qui pourrait mettre le feu à la cité.

Le récit d’une progression minutieuse, ponctué de relances constantes et diverses, suit un crescendo dont chaque étape est une révélation. Le réalisateur Ladj Ly ouvre les portes d’univers – ceux de la police et des banlieues – avec leurs rites, leurs langues, leurs comportements, leurs regards. Observateur, il dramatise un constat nourri de sa propre expérience, ayant grandi dans le milieu qu’il décrit.

Les Misérables évite le manichéisme banlieue/police. Le renvoi à Hugo trouve son sens dans les conditions de vie où se situent policiers et banlieusards : même non reconnaissance, mêmes foyers, mêmes problèmes familiaux… Jouant d’une caméra inventive, les scènes d’action sont percutantes, avec une tension constante de l’image. Les acteurs, professionnels ou non, crèvent l’écran, avec un Alexis Manenti en Chris, flic teigneux plus vrai que nature. Avec Les Misérables, un cinéaste est né.

– Jacky Bornet, Culturebox


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