Les Miserables: The simmering rage of Paris

Les Miserables by Ladj Ly is an intense portrait of contemporary France. Photo © Festival de Cannes

Cannes Day 2 witnesses the rage of Paris -- not the yellow wrath of gilets jaunes, but the brown-and-black anger of rundown suburbs that makes up the complex social structure of modern France.

Ladj Ly's Les Miserables, screened in Cannes' Competition on Wednesday, is not, as you might think, a contemporary adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel; it is an intense, sometimes breathless cop drama that telescopes the raw reality of the banlieue, a commune of blocky, anonymous concrete residences populated by non-whites of African (and mostly Muslim) descent. Specifically, the film is set in Montfermeil, where in 2005 riots broke out and spread fire and flames over Paris. It is also where Ly, the director, came from; what you see here is unmistakably a close-up experience of what it feels like to grow up there.

Montfermeil is also the suburb where, 157 years ago, Victor Hugo sat down to write Les Miserables -- and thus the immediate historical and political relevance of the film that, unlike Hugo's novel, doesn't so much as explore the possibility of redemption as captures the everyday strife of the neighbourhood where an explosive mix of crime, football, structural alienation and hard-line Islam threatens to tip over. It's only two days into the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, but I'd hazard a guess that the jury (led by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, who once made a film about desperate youths of Mexico) will regard Les Miserables as a serious contender, perhaps in the directing department.

The film opens with a black youth draping himself in the trois couleurs French flag as he emerges from an apartment building to join his friends. They chant, shout and board a train to Champs Elysees and join the massive throng celebrating France's World Cup win.

That brief prologue, brisk in rhythm and steeped in symbolism, grounds the film firmly in the now, while the collective euphoria of a national victory is almost ironic considering that the fabric of a nation -- what makes up a sense of nationhood -- is wrought in a furnace of tension and fury. The name of the striker Kylian Mbappe, a breakout star in the 2018 World Cup, is thrown around a couple of times by the black teenagers; Mbappe, whose parents were immigrants from Algeria and Cameroon, came from one of the banlieue not unlike the one in the film, the slum boy hailed as a French national hero.

But the film is told largely from the point of view of Stephane (Damien Bonnard), a straight-laced cop recently assigned to the anti-crime unit. He joined Chris (Alexis Manenti), a rough racist cop, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) in a patrol car that makes rounds in Montfermeil.

The three officers' misadventure during the course of a day takes us on a tense tour of the neighbourhood where they have run-ins with its black mayor, a bearded thug-turned-imam, a troupe of gypsy circus performers, and a large number of troublemaking youths whose rage is in a state of perpetual boiling. Everyone here is so strung-up and hard-wound -- both the cops and their targets -- that we know something bad is going to happen, and when it does, the cataclysmic ending of the film is likely to be the most harrowing you'll ever see this year.

Ly's hyper-realistic style doesn't sensationalise any of this, neither does he simplify the complicated relationship between the authority and the population. In portraying police brutality, he also shows that opportunists and racketeers come in all colours, and that the world is so full of anger that a shot at redemption is something everyone regards as a miracle. There's no Jean Valjean in this Les Mis; only the cry of frustration that will continue to blare and echo, here in Cannes and elsewhere.

Let's hope Les Miserables find its way to Thai cinemas one way or another.