After the celebration from Parasite at this year’s Academy Awards,
foreign…eh, sorry, “international films” are getting some long overdue consideration in the states. One such film is Ladj Ly’s 2019 film, Les Miserables, which is just now getting visibility in the states.
If you are a cinephile and appreciate great moviemaking, this is a film you need to find (possibly on Amazon Prime).
Joyous excitement and a sea of red, white, and blue and the locals flying France’s colored flag high are flooding the streets of Paris as the film begins. France just won the World Cup and everyone, regardless of color or creed, were jumping for joy as Pink Noise‘s ominous music plays in the foreground. The visuals of ecstasy are fulfilling but the music and the hard cuts to text over black suggest something ominous comes.
This joy is only going to be temporary.
This version of Les Miserables should not to be confused with Victor Hugo‘s classic novel nor does it have any relation to the broadway stage play or the noted 2012 Tom Hooper-directed adaption featuring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. Les Miserables is a crime drama set in the poorer neighborhoods of Paris, but the film explores a web of storylines that eventually all come together in an explosive way.
We follow a group of cops, who are a part of the anti-crime brigade. Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) transfers to the unit to be closer to his son. He joins Brigadier Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and the squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti) on his first day during their patrols. Through this, we are introduced to the various gangs around Paris trying to maintain order in their world. Ruiz quickly becomes horrified and uncomfortable by Chris’ and Gwada’s tactics.
Living in the Real World
Thoughts of Antoine Fuqua‘s Training Day might come to mind. Both telling stories of police officers who walk around the streets acting as if they are kings. This is their world. They need the gangs to be in power and to rule over someone in their lives. There is a line of dialogue where Alexis Manenti’s hyper-masculine cop Chris, reminiscent of Denzel Washington‘s final speech.
While Training Day acts as an effective thriller and strong sense of morality play, Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables is more complicated than that.
Ly directs his film as a peek into the real world. His inspiration stems from a riot that happened right outside his front door and even though I have never been to France, the film carries a massive weight and appearance of authenticity. The on-location settings and the handheld calculated messy camera work of cinematographer Julien Poupard bring us to an authentic world.
With that realism comes the complexities of the real world.
There is no innocence, only a world created by an ineffective system forcing people to do what they need to survive, and a generation of kids that have been failed and exploited by the adults running this world. Even the morally righteous “good cop,” Stephane isn’t clean and is a part of the same problems that Chris represents. There is a juxtaposition and theme of team and solidarity throughout the movie from the opening frames, to the way the police conduct themselves.
This is the powderkeg that comes to blows as the police unit encounters Issa (Issa Perica), a young boy living in the projects who steals a lion from the circus. Quickly, we run into a situation that is all too familiar to those living in America–a violent encounter is caught on tape.
The Race for Reality
From there, the movie is nearly unrelenting in its tension and energy. The emotions run high as everyone around the projects are motivated to secure that video, which leads to a claustrophobic and explosive finale that I wouldn’t dare spoil. The final set-piece of this film is among the most heart-pounding that I experienced from a film all last year.
Ladj Ly’s film is committed to showing the complexities of systems in which people are forced to live. It’s transparent, real, and doesn’t sugarcoat anything, which is completely refreshing.
This movie manages to provide a strong point of view.
Ly has a point to make and his anger and virtuosity might remind you of Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film, La Haine (one could make the argument that this movie doesn’t quite escape that film’s shadow). There is moral ambiguity but not as an excuse to make an “apolitical” thriller or fall into a false dichotomy of “all sides are equally bad”.
Ly ends his film on an ambiguous note, but if you’ve been paying attention you know what is about to happen. The younger generation has been failed by previous ones and this time, we glance at the consequences of that perpetual failure. Ly goes out of his way to explore all the character’s sides; yet, doesn’t put them on the same moral footing.
Ladj Ly’s stunning debut isn’t quite perfect. The movie’s pace can occasionally lose rhythm and occasionally finds some clunky ways to get where it needs to go. Some might also accuse this being a mix of different films (some of which I’ve already mentioned). Personally, Ly’s voice seems strong and even if it’s revisiting the familiar, it delivers in a fresh and unique way. There is a reason Ly’s does what he does: his inspirations are clear but that never gets in the way of his own filmmaking.
Victor Hugo once said,
“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century – the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labour, the ruin of women by starvation and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible;
In other words and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this.”
This was in reference to his novel, Les Miserables. This might not be an adaptation of that novel but the words of Hugo are felt throughout the runtime of this movie. Ly’s film is attempting to show the very same things that Hugo spoke of with his massive 1,480 page novel (at least, that’s how long my edition is).
It may not be an adaptation but it does feel like a refreshing update on Hugo’s work. I love the parallels that Ly draws to Hugo’s work and earns the name, Les Miserables.
Les Miserables is an important and angry thriller that is well worth checking out if it’s playing somewhere near you.