January 10, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Ladj Ly
French with subtitles
Culture Representation: With almost no connection to Victor Hugo’s famed novel “Les Misérables,” this male-centric French drama film takes place in the present-day, predominantly black Paris ghetto of Montfermeil, which is policed by mostly white law-enforcement officers.
Culture Clash: The movie tells a brutal story of how police corruption and abuse of power make conflicts worse in an underprivileged community that already mistrusts the police.
Culture Audience: “Les Misérables” will appeal primarity to arthouse audiences who have a high tolerance for violent acts committed on screen.
It’s been pointed out many times before, but it must be said in every review of “Les Misérables,” the feature-film debut from director Ladj Ly: This movie has almost nothing in common with the Victor Hugo novel “Les Misérables,” which has been famously adapted into stage musicals, plays, TV shows and movies. (“Les Misérables” translates to “the miserable ones” in English.) The only common threads between Ly’s “Les Misérables” and Hugo’s “Les Misérables” are that the movie takes place in the Paris ghetto of Montfermeil (the home of street urchin Gavroche in Hugo’s novel), and much of the story is about a cop pursuit.
Ly’s “Les Misérables” is France’s 2019 official entry for the Academy Awards category of Best International Feature Film. The movie won the Jury Prize (in a tie with the Brazilian film “Bacurau”) at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and it was released in France later that year. It’s an interesting Academy Awards choice for France, considering that France has another very strong 2019 awards contender with writer/director Céline Sciamma’s 18th century-set drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which won the Best Screenplay award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps France chose “Les Misérables” because it’s perceived as more socially relevant to today’s culture than “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a lesbian romance that takes place in 1770.
Viewers should be warned that Ly’s “Les Misérables” is intense and often depressing. There’s no Jean Valjean hero who has mercy on the poor and saves people’s lives. The U.S. already has dozens of movies and TV shows about police brutality inflicted on financially disadvantaged communities that are populated mostly by people of color, so American audiences might not be as in shock and awe over Ly’s “Les Misérables” as other audiences might be who are in countries where police gun violence isn’t as prevalent.
Ly based his feature film “Les Misérables” (which he wrote with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti) on his short film of the same title. Both films were inspired by the real-life 2005 World Cup riots in France. The actors who portray the three cops at the center of the story in the short film reprise their roles in the feature film: Damien Bonnard is earnest new employee Stéphane (nicknamed Pento); Manenti is alpha-male racist bully Chris; and Djibril Zonga is “go along to get along” follower Gwada.
At the beginning of the film, field sergeant Chris establishes his dominance as the leader of the pack by taunting newcomer Stéphane about his hairstyle. Stéphane is a divorced father who has transferred to the precinct so that he can live closer to his son. During most of the movie, Stéphane is doing ride-along training with Chris and Gwada in crime-ridden Montfermeil. Chris (who’s proud that he’s nicknamed Pink Pig) is the type of dirty cop who takes pleasure in using his authority to intimidate people.
For example, when he sees a group of three teenage girls who are hanging out on the street, he uses it as an excuse to stop and frisk search one of them whom he suspects has been smoking a joint. He also sexually harasses her by telling her he can put his finger up her anal area if he wants to do it. When one of the teenage girls objects to the harassment and starts filming the illegal search with her phone, Chris angrily grabs the phone and smashes it by throwing it on the ground.
Ultimately, there are no arrests, but Stéphane and Gwada stand by and do nothing to stop loose-cannon Chris, who is fully aware that he has the power to get away with his corruption. Apparently, he’s been doing it for years, and his hot-headed temperament is well-known in the police force. When Stéphane first shows up for work, fellow officers let it be known that they think Chris and Gwada are the “loser” cops, and anyone assigned to field duties with them is very unlucky.
Meanwhile, teenage Buzz (played by Al-Hassan Ly) has been going around the neighborhood causing mischief with a drone, including secretly video recording young female neighbors whose windows are exposed. When one of the teenage girls confronts Buzz with two of her female friends, he expresses sheepish contrition and agrees to delete the embarrassing videos and use the drone to record one of their upcoming basketball games.
The cop trio soon gets involved in solving an unusual crime: a baby lion has been stolen from a zoo, and the suspect is a young male who lives in Montfermeil. During a series of events that go horribly wrong, Buzz’s drone video catches Gwada committing a crime against the suspected lion thief: a teenage boy named Issa (played by Issa Perica), who’s also one of Buzz’s friends. Even though Chris has spotted the drone and knows that there are eyewitnesses, he decides to cover up the crime anyway. A horrified Stéphane objects, but ultimately goes along with the plan. The cop trio then spends the rest of the movie in pursuit of finding the video evidence so it can be destroyed.
There’s a gritty realism to “Les Misérables” that will hit hard with people who are disturbed by police brutality. The film’s unrelenting negativity doesn’t leave much room for hope or positive inspiration, since almost every major character in the movie either participates in crimes or looks the other way when they see crimes being committed. And even though the movie’s pace often builds suspense over what will happen next, director Ly accurately portrays the deep-rooted cynicism and defeatist attitude that disenfranchised people have that their fates are already sealed. They know that even if they’re not guilty of crimes, they can be easily framed by cops and mistreated by an uncaring and overwhelmed legal system.
The ultimate message in the movie is: “Should these disenfranchised communities take this abuse, or should they fight back?” The ending of Ly’s “Les Misérables” might not be satisfying enough for people who are used to having conflicts clearly resolved in a story, but the movie’s conclusion is a reflection of real life, where there aren’t always easy answers.
Amazon Studios released “Les Misérables” in select U.S. cinemas on January 10, 2020. The film was originally released in France in 2019.