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Review: Les Misérables

January 17, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Symbolically named after Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel about poverty and injustice, and the beloved musical that it subsequently inspired, director Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is a modern day fable about racial tensions and police brutality in contemporary France that explores how a series of events can bubble over into chaos.

The film was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes and also just received an Oscar nomination in the newly renamed category of Best International Film, having been France’s official submission over the critical darling Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and its social and political relevance – not to mention quality – likely helped it secure a spot.

Like Hugo’s story, this film is also set in Montfermeil, a suburb of Paris that has become a cultural melting pot. At the start of the film, France has just won the World Cup, leading to celebrations in the streets that we observe in the opening scenes, but tensions are rising between different groups in the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. We follow three plainclothes officers working for the police department’s anti-crime brigade who are sent out to patrol the area.

There’s Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and Chris (Alexis Manenti), both veterans of the force, as well as new recruit Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), who has just been picked up for his first day on these streets and is given the nickname “Greaser.” Chris walks around with the cockiness of someone who believes that he is the law, where as Stéphane doesn’t believe that he is above the law and is used to following rules that this unit has decided don’t apply to them.

A series of escalating events get set in motion when Issa (Issa Perica), an adolescent boy who has a history of getting in trouble with the law and has positioned himself as the leader of a gang of kids, steals a lion cub from a travelling circus troupe, as another local boy (Al-Hassan Ly) films everything with his drone. These disparate elements slowly but surely come together throughout the deliberately paced first half, coming to a boil with a shocking scene about halfway through that sets the stage for the finale.

The result is an explosive drama that builds with simmering tension towards the literal fireworks of its climax, ending with an intense fadeout that wisely ensures the discussion will keep going long after the credits roll. It’s a daring choice that Ladj Ly has made, and some audiences might find it frustrating, but I think it’s the perfect way to end such a potent film, symbolizing that these issues are ongoing. Through this stylistic choice, Ly seems to be acknowledging that these often volatile interactions between police and marginalized communities, which fuel the anger within his film, keep building and seem incapable of being properly defused, unless somebody makes the choice first to lay down their weapon.

It’s a vicious cycle that keeps repeating itself, emblematized by the film’s slow-burning plot where one thing keeps leading to another and snowballing further and further out of control. This is a challenging film that seems intended to provoke. Ly does a good job of maintaining interest and tension throughout Les Misérables, crafting a film that seems as inspired by its namesake novel as it does by Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film Do the Right Thing, even following a similar template of unfolding over a single, blisteringly hot summer day.

The screenplay, which was co-written by Ly and Manenti along with Giordano Gederlini, touches upon themes of nationalism, citizenship, and how police overreach can fuel distrust in the law. It’s written in shades of grey, with characters who don’t necessarily perform as stereotypical heroes or villains, and filled with some surprising moments of both insight and humanity as we observe a day unfold in this community. The acting is uniformly strong, particularly from the three adult leads and promising newcomer Perica. What we are left with is an engaging and timely snapshot of modern day Paris.

Les Misérables is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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