Verdict: This cop procedural simmers with tension that erupts into violence.
Filmmaker Ladj Ly, known for his documentaries, was recognized in 2017 for his César-nominated (French National Award) short called Les Misérables that took us through a volatile French neighborhood. This year, he makes his debut feature will the extended version of the same film starring the same three leads. The film has gone on to receive great acclaim worldwide as the winner of the Jury Prize and a competitor for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2019. It was also selected as the French entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.
What’s Les Misérables About:
Police officer Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) has just begun working in the tough Montfermeil district of France, famously known for being the location the Thenardiers’ inn in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. The cop joins the street crime unit’s day patrol alongside Gwada (Djibril Zonga) under the command of Chris (Alexis Manenti). As the three begin their job of cruising around the neighborhood, Stéphane gets a first-hand inspection of the power structure on the streets. Chris’ authority is created by his streetwise nature of bullying and banter while a trusted local nicknamed “The Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu) has powerful control of the goings-on in the area. Meanwhile, a reformed jihadi named Salah (Almamy Kanouté) who owns a kebab shop commands great respect from residents and acts as a confidant. The already existing tension in this neighborhood threatens to reach a boiling point when the simple case of a missing lion cub from a nearby circus leads to a sordid chain of events.
Les Misérables begins with a sea of people on the streets of France cheering for their World Cup win in an ecstatic celebration. That paints an ironic big picture of what is to follow in the film. As newbie cop Stéphane begins his patrols on the streets of Montfermeil, you get a tour of a community that’s fraught with tension. It is evident from then on that the film comes from a familiar place for Ladj Ly. The hour-by-hour encounters on the tough streets of this French community are created with such grounded realism that it could only have come from true first-hand experience. As we get to know the neighborhood and the people in it, it becomes clear that there’s plenty of agitation boiling under the surface. Then that simple prick happens and the simmering tension begins to overflow, making you aware of just how dangerous things could get. It’s an anxious feeling and one you can’t escape as a viewer. That feeling is only escalated by the brilliantly vivacious camera work. You’re pulled into this unshakably tense situation in a turbulent society that’s not too difficult to recognize or relate to. As the biting final sequence of the film begins, you can’t help but be floored by what it all leads up to. Each character is not any less to blame but their actions are only motivated by the society that they live in. The closing text of the film says it best: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” Les Misérables ends with a haunting final frame, leaving you to ponder on the probability of how it ends and if either outcome is any less upsetting.
What Could’ve Been Better:
If you’re hoping for a resolution from this film that puts you in the midst of a harsh reality, you won’t get one. Les Misérables paints a bleak social picture for those who are willing to stomach it.
Why You Should Watch:
Les Misérables presents a menacing portrait that will haunt you even more if you put the film’s first frame side by side with its last. Watch it to witness a candid commentary on a volatile society.