GFF 2020: Les Misérables

By Alex Donaldson

Part of the Glasgow Film festival’s Pioneer strand, Director Ladj Ly’s full-length directorial debut Les Misérables shows off his immense promise.

In the opening scene of Les Misérables, the exuberance of France’s world cup victory has taken hold amongst a group of young Parisians led by the adventurous Issa (Issa Perica). By the end of the film it is those same Issa left clutching a Molotov cocktail in contemplation on whether to use it. His journey is best characterised by the Victor Hugo quote from the original Les Misérables that features within the Films ending, “there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

The film follows various people within the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil where despite the seeming community spirit of the world cup win, tensions are high. Brigadier Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), having moved to the area to be closer to his son, joins the area’s street crime unit. Teamed up with Officers Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and Chris (Alexis Manenti) he immediately finds himself at odds with the duo’s unorthodox approach to policing. Relying on powerful people within the community for information such as the self-appointed ‘Mayor’ (Steve Tientcheu) and Muslim community leader Salah (Almamy Kanoute).

When ethnic tensions are stoked by a travelling circus who’s lion cub was stolen by Issa, the trio of officers scramble to resolve the problem. However they only manage to escalate them to the point of violence when drone enthusiast Buzz (Played by the director’s son Al-Hassan Ly) captures a video of Gwada shooting a handcuffed Issa with a ‘flash-ball’ round.

The film is at its best when following the officers weaving through the streets of Paris, examining their relationships with the civilians. Streetwise Chris’ abuses of power go unchecked by Gwada and leave Ruiz disillusioned. Their arrest and subsequent injuring of Issa eerily mirrors familiar events across the world and through Chris especially you see the disturbing face of unchecked police aggression, one who once returning home seems entirely unphased by his own actions. This is not unfamiliar territory for Ly who, having grown up in Montfermeil had filmed and recorded acts of police violence back in 2008, some of which forms the inspiration for this film, only enhancing its gritty realism.

Despite the films casual pace prior to Issa’s arrest it never feels out of place when the pace is upped. At the film’s frenetic finish the audience is confronted with all the consequences of the films threads and is left at the end to consider the implications, bringing to mind again the Hugo quote. In all, it was a great job by Ly not only to humanise the deeply flawed cast but to gift the audience an accurate sense of the pressures of life in such a hotbed of tensions.


Les Miserables screened as part of the pioneer strand of the festival. More films in tis strand can be found here