Director Ladj Ly has made a remarkable debut with his first film, Les Miserables, which was chosen as France’s entry to the Academy Awards and is now tipped to win an Oscar.
The film echoes Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel with a 21st Century story of police persecution and injustice.
Les Miserables is set in the embattled Paris suburb of Montfermeil, home of a mostly North African migrant population.
In the film’s exhilarating opening scenes the streets of central Paris are alive with cheering crowds, waving French flags, chanting the Marseillaise, celebrating France’s victory in the 2018 World Cup.
Cut to the rundown streets of Montfermeil, where provincial policeman Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) arrives to join the tight squad charged with keeping order in this volatile neighbourhood.
The team leader is Chris (Alexis Manenti, co-writer of the script with Ladj Ly and Giordano Gederlini), a white bully with a short fuse.
“I am the law around here,” he says.
His off-sider is Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a quietly-spoken black West African who joins Chris in mocking the newcomer Ruiz.
When Ruiz protests at Chris’s harassment of the locals he is told: “We are the only ones they respect.”
Ruiz scoffs. “Respect? People around here just fear you.”
Director Ly knows Montfermeil well. This is where he grew up, and the explosive riots of 2005 began in the building where he lived.
In a series of tense scenes, he paints a vivid picture of a tough community of more than 30 nationalities ready to explode at any provocation.
An angry Romany circus owner confronts the black fixer Mayor with threats of violence when his pet lion cub gets stolen.
The police suspect an unruly gang of teenage boys, led by the incorrigible Issa (Issa Perica) and they set out to track them down.
What started as a kids’ prank blows up into an out-of-control confrontation between the heavy-handed police and the furious teenagers.
Issa is hurt, knocked unconscious. It looks bad for the police, especially when they realise the whole thing has been filmed by a remotely controlled drone owned by one of the kids.
Issa needs a doctor but Chris is far more obsessed with the need to find the drone’s owner and get hold of the film.
Les Miserables is fast-moving, tense, a powerful picture of the battle for survival by the rival factions in a Paris slum,
Les Miserables, part of the Lotterywest Film Festival, is showing at the Somerville Auditorium at 8pm until Sunday 2 February.
In French with English subtitles.
Watch the trailer…