Ladj Ly's muscular police procedural "Les Miserables" is much leaner than Victor Hugo's sprawling novel and shares little with it besides a suburban Paris setting. But they're united in their sympathy for — and belief in the formidable power of — the underclass.
"Les Miserables," France's Oscar submission and the jury prize winner at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is a visceral, street-wise portrait of those who abuse power, and those who demand it, in the working-class Paris banlieue of Montfermeil. The film is set specifically around the housing projects known as Les Bosquets, ground zero in the Paris riots of 2005. That explosion of violence was, in part, about French identity. Most of the rioters were poor second- or third-generation immigrants, largely North African Arabs, who had long been marginalized.
Ly, the son of a garbage collector from Mali, grew up in the area, and when the unrest erupted, he was there to document it. "Les Miserables" is his fiction-film debut, and it pulses with the fire and feeling of a filmmaker dramatizing something he knows intimately.
Ly fills his film with a spectrum of characters from across the projects: the kids who ride garbage can covers down cement like sleds, including the young Issa (Issa Perica); the Muslim Brotherhood members, including the kebab shop owner Salah (Almamy Kanouté); a gang of gypsy circus workers, furious when their lion cub is stolen by Issa; a local community leader known as "The Mayor" (Steve Tientcheu).
But the film's central characters are a trio of police officers in the Street Crimes Unit who cruise through the neighborhood. New to the team is Stephane (Damien Bonnard), a more dutiful cop whose attention to the law, and the rights of citizens, isn't shared by the harassing, proudly racist motormouth Chris (Alexis Manenti, who co-wrote the film with Ly and Giordano Gederlini). His faithful, if slightly skeptical black partner is Gwada (Djebril Zonga).
On his first day, the police commissioner (Jeanne Balibar) tells Stephane: "No solidarity, no team."
The procedural set up, taking place across one eventful day, is familiar. "Les Miserables," in which the SCU's tactics come to a head with the impoverished community evokes "Training Day" or "Do the Right Thing" as much as it does Hugo.
But Ly's film excels in its lively verisimilitude, its terrific cast and its intensity. "Les Miserables" is a powder keg, always at risk of detonating. We have the sense that the Bosquets' simmering flames of disquiet and injustice are always a matchstick away from blazing.
Tensions do finally spill over, with Ly commandingly tracking the action from the ground and, in frequent drone shots, from above. The conclusion tips the movie into an inferno that may, by letting the tensions out, dilute the film's force. But less questionable is the direction of Ly's gaze, who turns his movie's focus toward the young boys of the Bosquets, and the dim future their country is fixing for them.
By then, the sense of unity — you might say solidarity — expressed in the movie's opening scenes has long since disappeared. Those early images capture the boys joyously celebrating with the Paris throngs in France's World Cup victory. Ly ends with an ominous quote from Hugo: "There are no bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators."
"Les Miserables," an Amazon Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for language, violence and sexual references. Running time: 104 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Three stars out of four.