Whenever a first-time feature director makes it into the Cannes Film Festival Competition it’s worth taking notice. Only a small handful have achieved the honor in recent years, and one, László Nemes back in 2015, took his Son of Saul all the way from the Croisette to the Foreign Language Film Oscar. This year, Ladj Ly has the distinction of being the sole debutant with Les Misérables, not adapted from, but echoing some of the strife of Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel of the same name, and set in today’s Paris.
Ly is a French actor and documentary filmmaker who hails from the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, which inspired the setting of the Hugo novel. To give a hint at expectations for Ly’s film, Vincent Maraval, the co-founder of Wild Bunch, describes Ly’s talent thus: “Ladj is a ray of sunshine in a peevish cinematographic landscape. He’s the new boss, and no one knows it yet.” (Since we spoke with Maraval, Ly was signed by CAA.)
Although he’s new to the Cannes festival Competition, Ly is no industry neophyte. He was also a founding member of the Kourtrajamé artists collective in the ’90s. The group, which includes filmmaking co-founders Kim Chapiron and Romain Gavras, announced last September the creation of a free film school open to students over 18 regardless of whether they already hold a diploma, situated not far from Montfermeil.
Ly was lauded for his 15-minute 2016 short, also titled Les Misérables, about a young policeman whose first arrest goes terribly wrong. The short was nominated for a César and won the Canal+ Award at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in 2017.
Les Misérables centers on Stéphane, who has recently joined the Anti-Crime Brigade in Montfermeil. Alongside his new colleagues Chris and Gwada—experienced members of the team—he quickly discovers tensions running high between neighborhood gangs. When they find themselves overrun during the course of an arrest, a drone captures their every movement. Inspired by the riots of 2005, Ly explores contemporary Montfermeil more than 150 years after Hugo, with the similarities between today’s angry youth and the petit Gavroche only too clear.