Anger is an energy, and the residents of Paris suburb Montfermeil have more than enough to go around. Local resident Ladj Ly builds his feature debut Les Misérables around this force, which simmers under the surface of the nation.

Montfermeil is dominated by three sprawling council estates, and unofficially run by local crime boss ‘The Mayor’. In direct opposition are the local police, who patrol the streets using brute force as their means of justice. We hear about criminal activity, but in a pointed choice from writer-director Ly, we almost never see it, except when Chris (Alexis Manenti), leader of his police squad, bargains for an off-the-books gift for his wife.

The implication is that the police pressure in this neighbourhood is a weapon of institutional racism, terrorising working people – predominantly of colour. Julien Poupard’s photography supports this, bringing beauty to the streets with elegant tracking shots.

Despite this, Ly is careful to maintain balance and sympathy, centring the police half of the narrative around Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a conscientious cop who avoids intimidation and violence at all costs. He is subdued by his colleagues’ conduct, but is it necessary to survive here? Shots of him fastening his fluorescent orange ‘Police’ armband are played for laughs, and his textbook style is bulldozed by the locals, more used to the currency of aggression.

The story centres around a farcical tragedy, started by some kids stealing a lion cub from a local circus, and it’s this note that Ly rings truest. Everything about the warfare between cops and locals is avoidable, but the institutional and communal structures they were raised in pit them against each other.

Les Misérables is an urgent and important testimony on the clash between the state and its poorest citizens, and although Ly never manages to make any one character stand out, his broader message is vital.



CAST: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa PericaSteve Tientcheu


WRITERS: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti

SYNOPSIS: A cop from the provinces moves to Paris to join the Anti-Crime Brigade of Montfermeil, discovering an underworld where the tensions between the different groups mark the rhythm.