‘Les Misérables’ Review: Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated political thriller set in a suburb of Paris

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Last year, about 160 years after Victor Hugo wrote his magnum opus Les Misérables, the French filmmaker of Malian origin, Ladj Ly, came out with a French language film of the same name. The film premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize in the festival’s main competition. Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables was subsequently picked as the French entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. The film went on to get nominated for the Oscar but eventually lost out to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.

The main connection between Ladj Ly’s film and Hugo’s novel is that it is set in Montfermeil—situated in the eastern suburbs of Paris—where an important part of the novel is set. However, as opposed to Hugo’s novel, which offered a scathing criticism of the 19th French society which mostly constituted of the French people, Ladj Ly’s film offers a critical examination of the plight of the immigrant population in Montfermeil, mostly belonging to the African and Arabic ethnicities. The film ends with a famous quote from Hugo’s classic novel: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” What Hugo is trying to tell through these lines is that those who are actually supposed to care and look after the society often fail in doing their duty miserably. It’s a reminder of the responsibility that the government has towards its people—a duty that every government must undertake to the best of its abilities.  

After a successful run at the festivals all across the globe, Les Misérables is finally hitting the Indian theatres. At the recently concluded 45th César Awards, the hard-hitting political drama Les Misérables took home the Best Film award part from 3 other awards. After bringing critically acclaimed films such as Shoplifters, Ash is the Purest White and Yomeddine to Indian screens, Sanjay Suri (KAHWA Entertainment) and Srinivasan Narayan (In2Infotainment) & C A Films are now presenting Les Misérables. It is being distributed by Rakesh Sippy (Raksha Entertainment). As part of the promotions ahead of the film’s release, Alexis Manenti (co-screenwriter and one of the film’s protagonists) and Omar Soumare (actor) also visited India recently.

Les Misérables is a politically charged thriller that is relentless in its critique of police and administration. Few films in the recent times have questioned the role of authorities in a modern society like Ladj Ly’s film does. Les Misérables may remind some viewers of Costa Gavras’ 1969 masterpiece ‘Z’ which was an adaptation of the Greek novel of the same name by Vassilis Vassilikos. Dibakar Banerjee’s 2012 film Shanghai was also based on it. While Les Misérables may not be in the same pedigree as Z, it never really loosens its vice-like grip. The brewing tension can be felt right from the word go and as the narrative progresses the volcano threatens to erupt any moment but somehow it doesn’t until the very end when finally all hell breaks loose.    

Rating: 8/10

A version of this review was first published in The Sunday Guardian.

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