What does it say about the current state of France that two major films hark back to the 19th century and its great—and very political—writers, Emile Zola and Victor Hugo? Perhaps a nod to the adage le plus ça change … It’s no coincidence J’Accuse and now Les Misérables have come out during a period of high social drama: the Yellow Vest protests and now the strike over retirement pensions. J’Accuse dealt with anti-Semitism, while Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, loosely based on the riots of 2005 and more tenuously on Hugo’s classic, tackles Paris suburbs, racial minorities, and police brutality. The odd thing is that while the new Les Mis offers a harrowing vision of France’s lower depths, in form and style it seems more American than French.
On the narrative level Les Misérables is a crime story (Hugo’s novel was as well). We follow three plainclothes policemen on their beat, the town of Montfermeil, in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, the hottest of Paris’s near suburbs (also known by its numerical appellation, 93—and where Hugo wrote his novel). Two are veterans who’ve gone native: Chris (Alexis Manenti), a white Frenchman whose wife is North African, and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), of African descent, who comes originally from the hood. They interact like so many black-white cop partners in umpteen Hollywood movies.
The third, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) is a newbie, moreover from the provinces. The movie is; among other things, the story of his baptism of fire (on occasion all too literal), and the other two dub him Pento. Characterwise, he’s the main interest of the movie. He’s eager to learn and master his environment, and with his piercing eyes and sharp profile he cuts through it like a hawk. Yet he also wants to accommodate his morals and professional ethics, resisting the casual corruption and rule-breaking of his new partners.
As they go about patrols the team resembles a pirate crew on the rampage. Chris in particular recalls Gene Hackman’s Popeye in the classic French Connection, exuberantly iconoclastic and downright nasty. He gradually becomes a bit much even for hardened viewers, but he’s no worse than other denizens of 93, from “The Mayor” (Steve Tientcheou), a sort of ghetto godfather, to Salah (Almamy Kanoute), bar-owner and Islamist, to an unscrupulous gypsy circus operator named Zorro (Raymond Lopez).
What lifts the film from being just an urban panorama, colorful but something of a downer, is the dramatic structure the director stamps on it. It’s hard to believe, given the dense universe Ly creates, that Les Misérables takes place during a single day. The plot seems like a fanciful shaggy-dog story at first. A young boy steals a lion cub from the circus, and enraged gypsies threaten big-time violence if it isn’t returned. The trio of cops track down the boy, Issa, with the laudable idea of keeping peace in the community, but the search degenerates into an Inspector Javert-like manhunt. That they’re looking for a suspect who’s a child makes the film more pathetic than Hugo’s story, but there’s also a grimly ironic aspect: the cops will be hunted in their turn.
It’s a shame Les Misérables stays mostly with the policemen and the banlieusards who are their “clients” (as they call them) or their antagonists (often both). They’re fascinating to watch and well played, but eventually become tiresome. The most affecting characters are the children we see. Issa Perica as Issa gives a moving and powerful performance, and we’d like to see more of his life at home and with his friends.
Almost as compelling is Al-Hassan Ly as Buzz, a boy with a passion for drones. With his large eyeglasses, deadpan expression and nerdy manner he’s a pint-sized Spike Lee with a tendency to use his drone to make videos—often of girls dressing near their windows. That leads to a comical confrontation with a pack of the victims, and more seriously results in inadvertently filming an act of police violence. Sometimes we get bird’s-eye shots from the perspective of Buzz’s drone, a conceit that works beautifully and that we should have had more of.
On a political level the film means to be an indictment of police power and the use of “non-lethal” weapons that have become controversial in France and elsewhere. The climactic end is gripping and brings the theme to a head, though not a neat resolution. But because the director relies on dramatization out of films like Fort Apache: The Bronx, where police are overrun by throngs of crazed locals, the indictment risks (pun intended) backfiring. The many contrived situations and plot points don’t help. And yet, while Les Misérables isn’t a perfect film, it’s good enough for Ly to join the ranks of other filmmakers of immigrant stock who are bringing a fresh point of view and dazzling technique to contemporary French cinema.
Les Misérables is France’s official candidate for the Best International Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards.
Production: Rectangle Productons/Lyly Films
Distribution: Bac Films/Amazon Studios