First-time director Ladj Ly hits big with Cannes prize-winning 'Les Miserables'
Les Misérables trailer
French-Malian filmmaker Ladj Ly, whose first feature film Les Misérables won this year’s Jury Prize at Cannes and was selected by France’s Oscar committee as the country’s submission to the Best International Feature Film competition, is in the U.S. doing advance promotion for its limited Jan. 10 domestic release.
Ly was in New York Nov. 25 for a screening—part of The Wrap’s Awards and International Screening Series-- at The Landmark at 57 West theater. He did a Q&A right after with The Wrap’s executive editor Thom Geier, who noted that the gripping drama, which has drawn comparisons with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the 2001 crime thriller Training Day (starring Denzel Washington in an Oscar-winning performance), had just opened in France on Nov. 20 and was already a huge success, having sold 500,000 tickets in five days.
Ly's Les Misérables does borrow the title of the classic Victor Hugo novel and takes place in the Paris suburb of Montfermeil, a locale in the book. It also runs a quote from it onscreen at the beginning: “There are no bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators.”
In Ly’s case, this pertains to the things he himself saw growing up in Montfermeil, particularly the often open conflict between impoverished Muslim and Afro-French residents and the anti-crime police.
Indeed, Variety’s reviewer said that Les Misérables “simmers with urgent anger over police brutality.” After the screening, Ly, through an interpreter, called it “a warning call addressed to politicians--with an open ending allowing viewers to come to their own interpretation.”
The plot follows three plainclothesmen as they drive around the Montfermeil streets and housing projects, which are ruled by gangsters and Muslim Brotherhood elders, along with bored kids with little discipline and much time on their hands. It’s a tinderbox waiting to explode, and after a gypsy circus’s lion cub is stolen by one of the kids, and another youngster’s drone films the kid getting shot in the face by one of the cops, it finally does.
While it is inspired by French riots that erupted in violence, looting and car burnings in 2005 outside Ly’s building, Les Misérables takes place in the present day—and with a script, said Ly, based entirely on real events.
“I wanted to bear witness,” he said. “I grew up in Montfermeil, and after I bought my first camera at 17, spent a couple weeks watching and filming police entering the neighborhood. I posted one instant of police brutality on the Internet: It led to an internal investigation, and for the first time in France, a police officer was suspended.”
Ly’s film background was in documentaries, he said, but as they were often censored, he had to show them online.
“But I always wanted to make fiction films,” he said, and his first non-documentary film was a short Les Misérables (2017) that was nominated for a Frency César film award—that he remade into feature length.
“I wanted to tell the story from the inside—without taking any sides,” said Ly, noting that the characters—police, religious and community group leaders were not one-dimensional stereotypes, but “humanized.” Recognizing that the leader of the three police is “basically an a**hole,” he noted that the character is also “more nuanced, and you grow to care for him—which is really important to humanizing him.”
Significantly, then, the police are not entirely bad guys, nor are the kids they combat wholly good. And the fact that the kids are all non-professionals cast from the neighborhood adds to the film’s extraordinary sense of realism. Directing them, Ly said, was “a joyful experience.”
One of the key characters is Buzz, the young drone operator, played by Ly’s son Al-Hassan Ly.
“It made sense for him to play the character, because it represents me,” said Ly. Another central character, Issa, was based on a real kid: In the movie, he begins the chain of events culminating in the incredibly intense climax by stealing the lion cub, and after being shot in the face and disfigured with a flash-ball gun fired intentionally by one of the three cops, exacts his revenge by leading his friends in an elaborately staged riot inside a big apartment building.
“He takes justice into his own hands,” said Ly, who noted that flash-balls, which were developed in France and are used in riot situations as an alternative to firearms and other ostensibly non-lethal weapons, have been used for years in neighborhoods like Montfermeil, and have caused “many terrible incidents.”
“Many people have pressed charges, but nothing happens,” he said.
As for the riot at the end of Les Misérables, Ly said it “was something I lived,” and that it required a well-planned two-day shoot with over 100 participants in the building’s stairwell.
“People were living there, and I was concerned about the noise,” he said. Of the “open ending,” he added: “It was important to maintain some hope.”
Ly noted that Les Misérables is the first part of a projected trilogy. The second installment will be a biopic of a former mayor in 2005, and the third will take place in the 1990s, such that “each film covers a 10-year period going backwards.” He noted that he originally envisioned a single film, then a two-part set, “but that still wasn’t enough.”
Responding to a question from the audience regarding his film being seen in the U.S. with its “major problem of police violence using real bullets,” Ly said he was extremely happy that it was being shown here, and that police brutality is “a universal situation” and one not just limited to France.
Another viewer observed that the opening of Les Misérables showed a “positive riot” in the streets celebrating a victory by the French soccer team, while the film’s end had a most negative one.
“Sadly, the only time we’re all French is soccer,” Ly conceded. But he denied that the stolen lion cub had any symbolic or metaphorical meaning, as he in fact had a buddy who stole a lion club when he was 18.
Ly also reported that French president Emmanuel Macron had been “tremendously moved” by Les Misérables “and wants to change things in these neighborhoods.”
Then again, Ly concluded, “This film is a warning, an alarm call addressed to politicians--and Macron got it.”