If you believe that fiction has the power to convey more about the complexity of explosive social issues than TV news, then you’re in perfect sync with the film industry folks in Cannes. So it’s hardly surprising that director and writer Ladj Ly’s first feature film, Les Misérables, a simmering realistic drama set in the housing projects of the Parisian banlieue, has proved to be the most sought-after French film by American buyers thus far in the festival.
According to Variety, following the world première in competition on Wednesday evening, Amazon Studios snatched up the rights to Les Misérables for an alleged $1.5 million dollars, winning out over Netflix. Critics have already compared the film to a modern version of Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 international hit, La Haine.
The film, set in the eastern Paris suburb of Montfermeil (a reference to the setting of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables, who calls it “a peaceful and charming place”) where director Ly was born. Based on a 2017 short film that Ly extended into his first feature, the story revolves around a trio of anti-crime squad cops who patrol the neighbourhood of Le Bosquet, inhabited by a mix of African and Muslim families. The tension builds when a theft is committed by one of the children (many of the young actors were local non-professionals) which leads to an almost apocalyptic climax.
“This new generation is not going to be patient,” says Ladj Ly. “The revolution will come from these neighbourhoods. And if they’re not heard or listened to, there’s a risk that the situation will become explosive.”
“With my character Gwada,” says actor Djebril Zonga, who plays a policeman of African descent, “you can see that cops have problems too—certain of them are fed up. And it can happen that they can blow a fuse and go crazy, especially if they’re working under very bad conditions.”
If Les Misérables resonates with France’s current social tensions, Cannes audiences will be discovering a veritable grab bag of themes in the upcoming French premières both in and out of competition. In Arnaud Desplechin’s new detective thriller, Oh, Mercy!, set in Roubaix in northern France, the story revolves around a Christmas day murder and two prime suspects, played by Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier.
In contrast, director Céline Sciamma’s historical 18th century romance set in Brittany, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, depicts a recalcitrant bride-to-be, played by Adèle Haenel, falling in love with a female artist who has been commissioned to paint her portrait.
Among this weekend’s highlights at the Fortnight of Directors, Alice and the Mayor, directed by Nicolas Pariser, is a dialogue-heavy Gallic sparring comedy set in present-day Lyon, starring Fabrice Luchini and Anaïs Demoustier. After a 30-year career, the jaded mayor Lyon (Luchini) feels empty and uninspired. Who does he call? (This is France, of course). A brilliant young philosopher (Demoustier) who tries to provide him with ideas and explore the irreconcilable gap between politics and the meaning of life.