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May 16, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Director Ladj Ly

If you surmised from the title that this French film is yet another iteration of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century novel, you’d be wrong. Well, mostly wrong. It was indeed filmed in the Parisian housing project of Montfermeil, where Hugo’s novel was largely set, and it deals with the boiling social ferment of the local populace, mostly young black men, against brutal law-and-order enforcers, principally the police, just as the Hugo classic did before race became a significant issue. “One century later, misery still exists in that place, and we didn’t want to forget that,” first-time director Ladj Ly told a news conference at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday. Ly himself was a product of such an environment and continues to live in a similar housing project, where he has experienced first-hand many of the incidents that he depicts in his film. In a Variety review, critic Guy Lodge called Ly’s film “a buzzing, sunstruck street thriller … a furious work of social geography.”

French critics were particularly moved. Eric Libiot, writing in the Paris newsweekly, L’Express, commented that the film landed at Cannes with “a punch” and instantly became the “first shock of the festival.” Time will tell whether Ladj will go on to make films that are equally challenging, Libiot signaled, “One thing is certain: Les Misérables is a great film.” Yannick Vely in Paris Match suggested that the film serves as a warning to a society that shows little concern about the lives of the young people confined in those roiling suburbs. “The fire is no longer political but social. And France from the suburbs [is destined] to fall again and again.”

The film ends with a display of a line from a well-known passage by Victor Hugo in the original Les Misérables in which a character expounds on the beneficial potential of the nettle: “If we would take a little pains, the nettle would be useful; we neglect it, and it becomes harmful. Then we kill it. How much men are like the nettle! My friends, remember this, that there are no weeds, and no worthless men, there are only bad farmers.”