Les Misérables movie review: Oscar-nominated thriller captures the revolutionary spirit, anger of Victor Hugo novel
Ladj Ly's Les Misérables doesn't just take the title of Víctor Hugo's work, but also its heart, spirit and anger.
castDamien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almany Kanoute
Two cops from an anti-crime brigade in Montfermeil (in the suburbs of Paris) give the new recruit a tour of the neighbourhood. As they go past a school in the district, one of them mentions it is named after Victor Hugo because he supposedly wrote his celebrated 19th-century novel Les Misérables somewhere nearby. In the book, Montfermeil is where Cosette spends a large part of her childhood, beaten and abused by the wretched Thénardiers. Seeing the poverty, drug abuse and delinquency, the newbie remarks how little has changed over the years. It is a surface-level comment but it turns out to be far more prescient when you consider what's in store for the next 24 hours or so.
Ladj Ly's Les Misérables doesn't just take the title of Víctor Hugo's work, but also its heart, spirit and anger. The film is however not a straightforward adaptation, but a freedive into the daily life and struggles of the underclass. Ly opens with the documentary-style images of thousands coming together at Champs-Élysées to celebrate France's victory at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Everyone's waving their flags, chanting slogans and singing "La Marseillaise" in unison — proudly. In this shared state of bliss, no one seems to care about race, religion, colour or country of origin — but only the French identity built on the values of "liberty, equality, fraternity". We witness the divide when the festivities end and they all return to their respective neighbourhoods.
Ly follows a group of children who make their way past the graffiti-laden walls to the ramshackle buildings of Montfermeil, where he himself grew up. These are the kids who will get inevitably drawn into the cycle of crime, and the battle between criminals and law enforcement. In this dangerous neighbourhood, tension always runs high. Each immigrant faction can't stand the other, be it rival drug-trafficking gangs, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Romani circus members. It's like The Wire in the French suburbs.
Patrolling these streets on the particularly tense day is the aforementioned trio of plainclothes officers: Chris (Alexis Manenti), Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and the new recruit, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard). What starts off as a Training Day of bribery, harassment and threats turns into a thorny situation when a bored kid named Issa (issa Perica) steals a lion cub from a Romani circus. Before this petty crime triggers an all-out gang war, the cops intervene to diffuse the situation but Gwada ends up accidentally shooting a flash-ball round in Issa's face. When the whole thing is recorded on a drone, it turns into a game of cat-and-mouse as the cops chase after it to escape prosecution for police abuse. Tension bursts into violent riots, mobilising the abused against the abusers, the have-nots against the haves.
Ly presents a portrait of the police, the criminals and the kids stuck in between — without splitting them up into the paradigm of black-and-white dualism. He doesn't paint the Muslim Brotherhood as jihadi extremists, but as a peaceful community trying to clean up their community and ease tension between factions. Chris is an alpha wolf, a bully who bends the law as the needs dictate because he genuinely believes it to be the only way. So does Gwada, who may play a passive role but he always acquiesces to his partner's actions.
Stéphane, on the other hand, believes in resolving conflicts through dialogue and trust. When Chris and Gwada insist on holding on to Issa to control the narrative on how he was injured, Stéphane nurses his wound and lets him go. However, in the stunning climax, his belief in de-escalation-through-dialogue is truly tested when he draws his gun on Issa, who holds in his hand a Molotov cocktail. Issa alone can decide the fate of the one man who perhaps treated him with a bit of kindness, the fate of all the other Gavroches, and the fate of Montfermeil itself.
In order to be more faithful to reality, Ly leaves no room for sentimentality. His camera stays close to the ground, often documenting people and events with a hand-held camera. There is an urgency to his participatory style of filming, which gives us a sense of the personal stakes involved in these conflicts. The mix of professional and non-professional actors not only helps capture the faces and voices of the real Montfermeil, but also helps blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. The hardened profanity and street slang also add to its irresistible authenticity.
Ly’s chronicle of disenfranchised youth through the prism of the banlieu landscape will surely bring to mind La Haine. However, its more derivative elements, borrowed from films like Training Day, End of Watch and Do The Right Thing, make it fall well short of becoming this generation’s answer to Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 masterpiece. Twenty five years later, a lot of the youth of African origin and Islamic faith continue to live on the fringes of French society. The downward social mobility and the deepening inequalities have turned a lot of these streetwise youth into beggars or hardened thugs. With police brutality becoming the order of the day, the suburbs thus remain a powder keg waiting to explode.
Like Hugo, Ly casts a critical eye on law enforcement, who treat the youth as inherently malicious rather than understanding that they commit petty crimes often for survival, or for a way out of poverty and peer pressure. By punishing these young offenders, they are leading them down an endless cycle of petty crimes, which may soon turn into more serious offences. Ly believes all this anger and frustration over socio-economic inequality can only end with revolution. He deems it imminent and necessary for the marginalised to live in a world beyond the barricade. In the words of Hugo, “If you wish to understand what revolution is, call it progress; and if you wish to understand what progress is, call it tomorrow.”
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