The excellent French drama, Les Miserables, is loosely based on the original Victor Hugo story, but is a modern day crime story inspired by the 2005 riots in Paris. It’s set in the gritty suburb of Montfermeil in Paris, where some of Hugo’s novel was set. It is also the suburb where director, Ladj Ly grew up. Montfermeil is a melting pot of people and inter-suburb conflict. Social urgency bubbles to the surface in every frame of the film and the simmering underbelly of life in this community has you wondering if all characters will make it until the end.
This film is set in a single day and tells the story of Stéphane, who has been transferred from the country to join the local anti-crime squad. He works alongside two corrupt cops who are trying to curb the mounting tensions between rival local gangs. When an arrest turns unexpectedly violent, the three officers must reckon with the aftermath and keep the neighbourhood from spiralling out of control. Add in a stolen lion cub, a nerdy kid with a drone, a travelling circus, racial and religious tensions and family dynamics and what you get is one absolute cracker of a film.
The Football World Cup
Les Miserables begins on the day that France won the Football World Cup. I was in Paris, staying in Saint Germain, on that day and it was one of the craziest days of my life. Spectators were spilling out of the bars and onto the streets and there was a sea of people swarming into Paris. Vuvuzelas were being blown and it sounded like a horde of angry wasps had descending on the city. Every point or referee decision prompted roars from the well -oiled crowds and when they won there was dancing in the street.
We were heading to dinner on our favourite bistro boat, Le Calife and it was an amazing vantage point cruising along the river and waving to the French fans spilling over and climbing up on the many Paris bridges. Cars sped through the city with people drinking champagne sitting on their roofs and the partying went on all night. It was an amazing and a little bit of a scary experience for this Aussie. The beginning scenes in this film brought back so many memories for me.
Les Miserables has been nominated for a raft of awards, and rightly so, both my husband and I loved it. It won the Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the Best Film Award at the 2020 César Awards and has been nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Academy Awards plus Best Foreign Language Motion Picture at the Golden Globes.
Veteran squad leader Chris, is played by Alexis Manenti. He’s a trash talking cop who will bend the law to get the job done. Gwada played by model, Djebril Zonga is a quieter local, who goes along with what Chris says to keep the peace. Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) is the newest member of the team. Stéphane brings the moral compass to the group.
The trio meet a few key locals along the way, including a talent to watch in young petty thief, Issa, played movingly by Issa Perica.There’s the leader of the Gypsy circus family, Zorko ( Raymond Lopez) and self proclaimed, ‘Mayor’ and crime boss played by Steve Tientcheu.
The story is beautifully acted and told with compassion, humour and a sense of the tension felt every day by those in the neighbourhood which Ly knows so well. Here in Australia Les Miserables will be in cinemas from August 27 and is just one of those films that stays with you long after the credits roll. One of the best and most thought provoking international films I’ve seen for years.
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