It may commence with throngs of diverse French football fans (some draped in red, white and blue flags) singing in national harmony in cafes and on the streets during the World Cup, but Les Misérables features no musical numbers—nor any (literal) Valjeans or Javerts. Nonetheless, Ladj Ly’s blistering drama is infused with the spirit of Victor Hugo’s seminal 1862 novel (and its renowned theatrical adaptation), conveying the timelessness of its namesake’s portrait of social injustice, sorrow and suffering through its modern saga of cops, crooks and those caught in the middle.
As if to hammer home its message that the more things change, the more they stay the same, Ly’s directorial debut (receiving a one-week awards-qualifying release on Nov. 29 before opening wide on Jan. 10, 2020) takes place in the working-class banlieue of Montfermeil—an enclave roughly an hour outside Paris that served as one of the locales of Hugo’s classic. Now as before, it’s a place where tensions between the police and residents run perilously high, and where there’s little hope of détente, much less any long-term solution to the problems that plague every block, shopping district and housing project. On the contrary, heartbreak seems inevitable in this suburban community, in which brown-skinned kids (many of North African descent) spend their time sliding on trashcan lids into piles of garbage, and cops patrol the area with a glint in their eye that suggests they’re itching for a rumble.
Based on Ly’s short of the same name, Les Misérables’ primary focus is a trio of police officers from a rough-and-tumble anti-crime unit: white squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti), known as the “Pink Pig” and prone to harassing young girls for kicks; his black partner Gwada (Djibril Zonga), who grew up in Montfermeil; and rookie Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a divorced dad who’s relocated from the countryside and is nicknamed “Greaser” by Chris for his slicked-back hair. Their dynamic is reminiscent of Training Day, and their introductory scenes together are marked by more than a bit of heavy-handed exposition, as when Chris explains to Ruiz why the town’s high school is named after Victor Hugo, and then jokes that these days, the area is populated by “Coozettes” (because of the influx of Nigerian prostitutes). It doesn’t take long to recognize that this is a schematic threesome, with Chris the not-so-closeted racist who proclaims, Javert-style, “I am the law”; Gwada, the more practical enforcer who believes vicious tactics are a necessary response to rampant criminality; and Ruiz, the noble virgin fighting to prevent his surroundings (and comrades) from corrupting his inherently good nature.
Though Hugo’s novel hovers over its action, Les Misérables is also indebted to City of God, The Wire, La Haine and Do the Right Thing—kindred works that investigate volatile racial, socioeconomic and cop-citizen frictions in disadvantaged urban milieus. Though Chris, Gwada and Ruiz are our guides through this environment, they’re far from its only notable inhabitants, as Ly soon introduces us to a community of characters on the brink of coming to blows. No sooner has Ruiz entered his compatriots’ grey Peugeot than he’s smack-dab in the middle of a brewing fight between a band of circus gypsies led by no-nonsense Zorro (Raymond Lopez), and Montfermeil’s reigning crime boss, the Mayor (Steve Tientcheu). The cause of their hostility? Zorro claims that one of the Mayor’s underlings has stolen his beloved lion cub, and demands that it be returned within 24 hours.
While a violent altercation is averted, this situation compels the cops, and the Mayor, to search for the missing jungle cat, which leads them to Issa (Issa Perica), a young black kid from a broken home who’s apparently stolen the cub for kicks. Knowing that criminals are too dumb to avoid bragging about their exploits online, Chris pins Issa as the culprit by searching social media—one of many telling details in Les Misérables, which has a lived-in sense of Montfermeil’s sights, sounds and people (it’s no surprise to learn that Ly himself hails from the town). When the officers find Issa, an arrest is made. Yet that’s only the beginning of their troubles, as retaliation from the boy’s friends, who instinctively view Issa’s detention as an act of police harassment, strike back—which, in turn, leads to Gwada shooting Issa with a flash-bang, all as the drone of dorky peeping-tom Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) captures the incident on video.
From there, the tale spirals increasingly out of control, with Issa’s initial crime the proverbial match that ignites a potentially riotous explosion. Pink Noise’s low, murmuring electronic score intimates impending trouble, while Ly’s camera (manned by Julien Poupard) captures the proceedings via both immediate handheld cinematography and more tranquil aerial drone shots that assume the perspective of a despondent God gazing upon his wretched, destructive children below. The director’s aesthetics are never less than urgent, and offset performances that frequently fail to rise above two-dimensions, less because of the actors themselves (who are all capable and engaging) than because of a script that, as with reformed drug dealer-turned-Muslim Brotherhood godfather Salah (Almamy Kanoute), opts for one-trait sketchiness over fully-realized characterizations.
If Les Misérables falls short of expansive Hugo-grade depth, it makes up for that shortcoming by refusing to paint in black and white, as well as through the sheer bravado of Ly’s filmmaking and his astute attention to the tinderbox atmosphere of contemporary French society. Chris and Gwada’s desire to cover up the shooting is the catalyst for the film’s second half, in which everyone is thrust on a collision course, and Montfermeil (as during the 2005 French riots) threatens to become the inexorable victim of the ensuing calamity. That things will devolve from bad to worse to potentially disastrous is all but ordained from the outset. Still, as epitomized by a late water-gun attack, the material’s plummet into chaos is telegraphed in ways that enhance, rather than undercut, the overarching tragedy, expressing the ingrained mistrust and brutality of this fractured community. And while Ly concedes that the conflagration must, in the end, rage, he concludes not with a preachy finger-wagging lesson but, instead, with an open-ended question for all his characters, and us: Will anyone be brave enough to take the first step toward ending such perpetual misery?
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