IT TAKES A very special blend of confidence in your own narrative talents and knowledge of the medium to be able to take on one of the greatest classics that the country in which you were raised cherishes like the bible, and to win at it. Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, in French with English sub-titles, is not a period drama based on the eponymous novel by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862. It is not a slavish interpretation of it told with modern eyes and modern contexts. Rather, it is an evolved and deep reflection on the work’s grand narrative, considering the role of mob energy, the role of one damaged by the authorities and the complicated concept of revenge.
Featuring a mixed and beautiful cast reflecting individuals in the sprawl of tenement housing in Paris’s urban and overpopulated belly, it’s a violent textured tale about drugs and prostitutes, homophobia and xenophobia, and a couple of policemen for whom this is home. And it is here we meet Corporal ‘Greaser’ Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), who is the new cop on the beat, in the city so that he can be near his son. He joins a drug unit, notorious for the give-and-take relationship it has with the local hoods – sometimes going a little too far, but rolling with punches all the way, as it spews invective and oft politically inappropriate tomfoolery.
It’s also here where we encounter the fervent and serious rough and tumble of soccer support, of the pre-teens in the neighbourhood and members of the Roma community who make their living from a circus. To say nothing of the complicated relationship with lines of protocol when it comes to law and corruption and Muslim brotherhoods and figureheads in the community. Very similar in its perfect understanding of the sheer coruscating authenticity of being in a context to Nadine Labaki’s extraordinary piece, Capernaum, Les Misérables is not just about the mechanisms of mob aggression.
It is vehemently cast in contemporary times and an accident involving cops, a riot-control gun and furious children is cast into riveting relief in the presence of a drone and the absence of a small lion. It’s a film that will keep you sitting on the edge of your chair and feeling your heart race, not only for the tale replete with dizzying cul-de-sacs as it unwinds but also because of the photography which in its wisdom and courage reveals a world beautiful and horrendous simultaneously. It’s a portrait of cruelty and unfairness, but one that astutely is not tied up with neatness. It ends on a knife edge, revealing every one of its characters as evolved and three-dimensional and leaving you thinking about all the thorny threads constituting the philosophy of conflict in a place where the rule of law is cast by the toughest thug.
The work is more than just an entertaining, relevant story. There are lines uttered and stated that throw, like Molotov cocktails, quandaries torn to shreds in their path. What is violence for the sake of violence? What is left after everything is burned away in a state of anger? What is the lion uttering when it roars? Does authority still matter?
You leave this film in a whirl of complicated ideas, humbled by the performances, particularly of the children in the work, led by an utterly astonishing Issa Perica. But arguably the most superficial question in your head may be how odd it is that this 10/10 masterpiece is on the same potential Academy Awards roll as pieces such as 1917.
- Les Misérables is directed by Ladj Ly and features a cast headed by Sébastien Adenis, Anass Aïssa, Nabil Akrouti, Emma Angamand, Stéphane Aubert, Jeanne Balibar, Mohammed Belgherri, Nizar Ben Fatma, Karim Benkaba, Damien Bonnard, Rachid Boujemaaoui, Sébastien Buron, Dominique Cache, Steve Cauret, Zordon Cauret, Abiatou Château, idriss Cherief, Bilel Chikri, Bandjougou Coulibaly, Issa Coulibaly, Mamdou Coulibaly, Oudjani Coulibaly, Mamadou Diaby, Saibou Diakité, Djeneba Diallo, Fodie Diallo, Malamine Diarra, Adama Dramé, Améline Fanta Gandega, Nsola Guerschon, Mousba Harb, Abdelkader Hoggui, Sana Joachaim, Almamy Kanouté, Kija King, Sidy Koita, Sofia Lesaffre, Diego Lopez, Jaihson Lopez, Luciano Lopez, Raymond Lopez, Rocco Lopez, Al-Hassan Ly, Amara Ly, Djibril Ly, Seydie Ly, Sambaké Madoualy, Jawad Mahdioub, Alexis Manenti, Zakaria Mechmache, Aristide Messi-Ntsama, Marie Morice, Boubakari Niakaté, Lucas Omiri, Issa Perica, Laurent Persin, Edwyne Pidery, Xavier Rabineau, Sylvain Ribot, Hugo Richet, Abbou Sadio, Marine Sainsily, Farès Sebhi, Mehdi Sebhi, Redouane Sebhi, Issa Siby, Fodjé Sissoko, Ilyes Souilah, Omar Soumare, Steve Tientcheu, Siyakha Traoré, Ritchie Zange, Djibril Zonga. Produced by Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral, it is written by Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti and Ladj Ly, and it features creative input by Julien Poupard (cinematography), Flora Volpelière (editing), Elise Vogel (casting) and Marine Galliano (costumes). Released in South Africa through Ster Kinekor: 17 January 2020.