“Les Miserables thrives in a cinematic contrast between frantic action and threatening stasis.”
Paris, 2018. Crowds fill the Champs-Elysees, singing ‘La Marseillaise’ and waving the tricoloured flag. France has won the World Cup – an event that was heralded as an ultimately unifying event, bringing people from all social, economic, and cultural backgrounds together in peace and victory. But tensions crackle under the surface. Smoke rises and chairs are waved in the air. The mood is overwhelmingly celebratory, but when the story cuts to SCU anti-crime brigade recruit Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) and his first day on the job, these restless undertones find release. What follows is a breathless hundred minutes as police brutality, gang hostilities, and one ill-timed theft exacerbate tensions in a suburban council estate.
Les Miserables is the first fictional feature directed by Ladj Ly, who grew up in the Montfermeil district, 25 kilometres northeast of Paris, where this film is set. It is also where Victor Hugo places Thenadier’s inn and the first meeting of Jean Valjean and Cosette in his novel of the same name. Hugo’s tale has no relevance to Ly’s plot aside from one scene where the police officers make mocking fun of what a modern-day Les Miserables would look like. However, the stagnation of poverty evoked by Hugo is still tangible: a century and a half after the barricades, those in charge are unable to comprehend those who have nothing, and the latter have next to no chance of improving their situation.
The film portrays corruption, violence, and discrimination relentlessly and unwaveringly, but passes no judgement on its players. While an effective way to tell this multifaceted story, the (at least initial) power imbalance between the police and the Montfermeil residents skews this ‘two sides’ approach. Through Ruiz’s introduction to the neighbourhood and his colleague’s unethical ways, he becomes an audience surrogate of sorts. This sympathy almost painting him as the one ‘good cop’ amongst his colleague’s avarice and exploitation. This framing does not sit easily, and one scene showing his (less sympathetic) companions with their families towards the end feels a clumsy attempt to inject them with a humanity their actions have not provided. The same humanisation is not granted the Montfermeil adult residents, who are exclusively seen in the context of the investigation. The Montfermeil children are where the film’s complete, if complicated, sympathy lies. Like Hugo’s, they grow up before their time, finding escape in recklessness. Growing up in a world that rewards extremes, they retain their humanity even as they push, and are pushed, towards the only possible release.
This arguable unevenness aside, Les Miserables thrives in a cinematic contrast between frantic action and threatening stasis. The camera keeps up with every violent action and desperate flight, never resting between or smoothing over the chases and conflicts. Accompanied by a sound design that washes each scene in electronic dissonance, the sense that something even bigger is going to break is stifling – and when it does, its ferocity is justified.
The film ends on a moment of excruciating ambiguity, fading to black with Hugo’s words on screen: “there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” Les Miserables is a profoundly thought-provoking film, keenly aware of the cycles of violence locking communities in perpetual disenfranchisement. While its apolitical stance and pessimistic view of human nature are not necessarily constructive, it does not lose its staying power.
Directed By: Ladj Ly
Produced By: Toufik Ayadi Christophe Barral
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Percia, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almany Kanoute, Nizar Ben Fatma
Release Date: 3rd March 2020 (Glasgow Film Festival), 24th April 2020
Featured Image Courtesy of Wild Bunch