Les Misérables (2020) Review

Les Misérables (2020)
By-the-book cop Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) is transferred from Cherbourg to the Anti-Crime Squad to police ‘Les Bosquets’, an estate in eastern Paris. Working with less scrupulous partners Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), the trio preside over a delicate status quo that soon escalates to boiling point.

by Ian Freer |
Release Date:

04 Sep 2020

Original Title:

Les Misérables (2020)

It takes grosses boules of steel for a French film to name itself after perhaps the most famous work in the country’s literary pantheon. Yet Les Misérables gets away with it. The first feature from documentarian-turned-fiction filmmaker Ladj Ly, this mostly mesmerising street thriller shares little plot-wise with Victor Hugo’s 1862 doorstep (nor is there any warbling about dreaming dreams, masters of the house or one more day), but instead appropriates the sacred cow of a title for a new, diverse generation of Parisians equally fuelled by inequality and unrest. Expanded from Ly’s César-nominated 2018 short, it’s an exciting, extended cops versus youths showdown that at once feels location-specific but could also take place in any major city in the world.

Ly imbues the film with a palpable sense of time and place, never at the expense of tension and excitement.

Following documentary footage of the multi-cultural celebrations following France’s 2018 World Cup win — a soon-to-be-forgotten joyous note — the action takes place over two days in Les Bosquets, a housing estate in the eastern Parisian suburb of Montfermeil (also a key locale in Hugo’s novel). Rookie idealistic cop Stéphane (Damien Bonnard, solid) joins the Anti-Crime Squad who police the projects — chiefly racist, repugnant alpha male Chris (an electric Alexis Manenti) and his Black partner Gwada (Djebril Zonga), who bristles at Chris’ behaviour but is not beyond reproach. The trio (as opposed to the usual buddy-cop duo) makes for an interesting dynamic as Stéphane (and the audience) get the lie of the land on the estate, where the lord of the manor (Steve Tientcheu) enjoys a reciprocal relationship with the 5-0 and rival sections —Muslim Brotherhood, Romany circus workers and gangs of disenfranchised kids — live uncomfortably together. On a white-hot, irritable day, the theft of a lion cub by live-wire teen Issa (Issa Perica) acts as a flashpoint and things escalate into a near riot that propels the film into a different realm of energy and danger altogether.

Les Misérables shares equal amounts of DNA with La Haine, Assault On Precinct 13, Do The Right Thing, Spiral and any number of US police dramas. Yet while it might be familiar, Ly, who comes from Montfermeil, imbues the film with a palpable sense of time and place, never at the expense of tension and excitement. Working with cinematographer Julien Poupard and editor Flora Volpelière, Ly mounts sequences of action (especially a sustained chase) and confrontation full of kineticism and verve, the tension heightened by the John Carpenter-esque thrum of Pink Noise’s electronic score. Key to the plot is a drone, and Ly uses aerial imagery as a brilliant counterpoint to visceral handheld footage, a gliding airborne camera providing an eerie overview of the concrete jungle. Filtered through the cops’ perspective, the film doesn’t necessarily get under the skin of its characters, especially those on the estate, but it still retains a feel for those who live life on the margins. And the final moments are ridiculously intense.

Don’t confuse it with Russell Crowe staring out of a window. After a patient build-up, Les Misérables becomes a Molotov cocktail of a movie, tense, explosive and urgent. A powerful fiction debut from documentarian Ladj Ly.
Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us