The shallow characterizations at the core of Les Misérables dampen the effect of its incendiary anger.
Ladj Ly’s debut feature may be called Les Misérables, but it’s not an adaptation of either the Victor Hugo novel or the Broadway musical. Rather, it’s a tense cop drama, simultaneously engaging modes of both documentarian observation — befitting Ly’s previous filmmaking experience — and more conventional plotting and characterization. Nevertheless, there is a Victor Hugo connection: the setting is the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, a major setting of Hugo’s novel, currently a neighborhood with a majority black population of African descent. Inspired by the suburban riots that rocked France in 2005, the film is largely concerned with the potentially explosive tensions between Montfermeil residents and the police. The cinematic antecedents are fairly obvious: La Haine, Do the Right Thing, Training Day. However, Ly doesn’t plunge us immediately into the maelstrom of social strife. Instead, we begin with a much more utopian image, the multicultural mass of soccer fans reveling in France’s 2018 World Cup victory, a raucous celebration in the streets, with the arresting sight of a little black boy proudly wearing the tricolor flag of France as a cape.
But this initial expression of togetherness proves illusory, as we then follow three cops as they patrol the Montfermeil streets. They are cop movie archetypes, if not outright clichés: Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the by-the-book rookie; Chris (co-writer Alexis Manenti), brash and unapologetically racist; and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), resident turned cop uneasily straddling the police/policed divide. Ly meticulously maps out the complex negotiations between the neighborhood’s groups — cops, unruly kids, drug dealers, Muslim Brotherhood members, Roma circus folk — that must occur to prevent the powder keg tensions among these factions from exploding. This mapping is reflected visually in the film’s go-to image, a drone shot (operated in the narrative by a neighborhood kid) surveying the action from high above. Predictably, all of this negotiating fails, with incidents involving a stolen lion cub, and subsequently one of the cops seriously injuring the young thief. Oddly for a film hinging so heavily on police malfeasance, the cops are more fully drawn as characters than the Montfermeil residents, who are mostly flat antagonists of the police with little discernible backstory. Though Les Misérables is clearly drawn from outrage, Ly’s shallow characterizations dampen his film’s sense of incendiary anger.
Published as part of January 2020’s Before We Vanish.