Les Misérables (2019)

The violently divided society of Victor Hugo’s novel persists in local Ladj Ly’s scintillating feature debut, which follows a police investigation into a riot in a Montfermeil banlieu.

A modern-day version of Victor Hugo’s Cosette would be working in the post office, reckon the three erudite anti-crime officers we follow across the estate where debut feature director Ladj Ly grew up – les Bosquets in Montfermeil, the still-notorious suburban commune east of Paris where Hugo drew inspiration for his seminal 19th-century novel Les Misérables. Based on Ly’s César-nominated 2017 short film – also of the same name – and partly inspired by the 2005 French riots, this Les Misérables draws parallels between Hugo’s text and modern life in the banlieue, exploring the social misery that follows an eruption of violence in the community.

Ly laces his film with humour and an infectious joy at the sight of kids playing in the streets, while also subverting pernicious stereotypes of minority communities. All serious business is pleasingly conducted in the local kebab shop, run by ex-thug-turned-local Muslim oracle Salah, who provides an oasis of support for the kids amid all the political turmoil.

Les Misérables is an exciting debut, peppered with detail and told from an insightful vantage point that ignites a fiery discourse about citizens, the state and violence.

Katherine McLaughlin, Sight & Sound

  • Orig. title: Les Misérables
  • Language: French
  • Subtitles: English
  • Distribution: Cinemanse
  • Print source: Cinemanse
  • Cinematography: Julien Poupard
  • Editing: Flora Volpelière
  • Music: Pink Noise
  • Sound: Arnaud Lavaleix, Matthieu Autin, Jérôme Gonthier, Marco Casanova
  • Production design: Karim Lagati