Los miserables ‘ (Les miserables, 2019) is Ladj Ly’s debut as a non-documentary feature director and is intended as an extension of the 2017 Cesar-nominated short of the same name, which also starred in the three main actors in this film. It comes with the chevrons of having entered competition in Cannes, which is an unusual choice for the Gallic festival, as the first operas tend not to be chosen to compete for the Palme d’or.
Ly uses a police thriller structure to tell her story, in fact, as she appears in various descriptions of the film, her film has more than a few similarities to the Antoine Fuqua films, she leaves little doubt of her approach to the ‘ Training Day ‘(2001) and his portrait of the police from within, common in David Ayer’s films streaming VF. Although the biggest difference is that it replaces the gray reflection and human drama of ethics and character study with the epidermal, current and almost activist sociopolitical messages.
As if Fernando Leon de Aranoa directed ‘The Wire’
Ly is conscious of her opinion of three policemen who roam the streets of a poor but culturally vibrant neighborhood in the Montfermeil community in Paris. A familiar setting, because it was the same place where ‘ Los Miserables ‘ by Víctor Hugo took place and which means the intention of the entire film. Living conditions have not improved much since the time of the novel, set in the French Revolution, and the seeds of turmoil will continue to take root as long as it is.
The main action unfolds in a span of 36 hours in the life of Stephane ( Damien Bonnard ), a rookie cop who joins a criminal squad consisting of Gwada ( Djebril Zonga ), of African descent, and Chris ( Alexis Manenti ). Chris is the classic alpha cop, self-appointed leader of the trio for probably racial reasons, although Gwada is silent and bestows in each of his excesses. Stephane spends his training day observing the corruption of his comrades, making it clear that he is the only morally clean person in the group.
Although it is predictable in some passages, the security behind the camera of the debutante makes his fresco of moral and economic misery can be fascinating and provocative, surprising for a debut that seems a vision of the ‘ Barrio ‘ (2001) of the Muslim, gypsy and migrant communities faced with a following of modern police cinema with touches of style such as ‘ The Wire ‘ (2002-2008) and a structure of simultaneous stories that intersect with the ‘ Crash ‘ (2004) by Paul Haggis, from the one that absorbs some of its moral-ending.
Thriller masked social cinema
However, despite all these natural comparisons, ‘ Les Miserables ‘ follows a tradition of contemporary French cinema that goes from ‘ Hate ‘ (La Haine, 1995) by Mathieu Kassovitz to ‘ Dheepan ‘ (2015) by Jacques Audiard. The difference is that the streets and lives of the most disadvantaged areas are captured by Julien Poupard’s solid handheld camera, which creates geographic clarity that never seems confusing but realistic and almost documentary.
It has a bit of a sightseeing tour of Montfermeil and its crowded flats, sprawling street markets, concrete waste grounds that young people use as soccer fields, and kebab shops that adults use as conference rooms. There is something almost unreal in the set that looks like a piece of realistic and cinderella sci-fi dystopia typical of John Carpenter or the ‘ The Purge ‘ saga, but it is precisely impressive for its inevitable connection with reality.
The relationship between the three police officers is also skilfully drawn, where Chris can be on the spectrum of unsavory agent — his attempted pat-down is despicable — and a manual case of an aspiring defendant accused of police brutality, but his relationship with the The inhabitants of the neighborhood are ambivalent, and Stephane is dedicated to observing without intruding. A succession of false endings leads to a more explosive and politically fascinating final reel that takes the film to a different level, where it truly connects with the work of Victor Hugo.
An anticlimactic ending
In a few stupendous last minutes, it is decided to opt for an anticlimactic closure, which says everything it wants to say, but chooses not to teach it. The feeling is that it ends in the best and there has been no courage or budget to take it to the ultimate consequences. ‘ Les Miserables ‘ talks about how small actions can change a place when this has been given by a country side. The plausible reality that he proposes is deformed to achieve a dramatic effect but it is not implausible in his gaze to a world of street children and dangerous thugs.
Ladj Ly cleverly uses the real images from the 2018 World Cup celebration – perhaps a little bit of an overstatement to use those images on the poster – in a raucous start that shows a party of national unity that contrasts with the violent insurrection that, in reality, represents the origin of the riots of 2005 and is a clear statement about the situation in Montfermeil and other similar places in France, almost as a warning to the powers that be that what is being cooked again condemns to repeat the history of France that Hugo romanticized.