Les Misérables

dir. Ladj Ly

France 2019

France, consumed by the frenzy of football, is just celebrating the great triumph of the national team that won the World Cup in 2018. In the streets, squares and bars, crowds of people wearing the colours of the country’s flag present the unity of the whole country. This feeling of euphoria is quickly put to the test.

The film is set in Montfermeil, the eastern district of Paris. The story of Victor Hugo’s original Les Misérables also takes place there. Despite hundreds of years that have passed, this district is far from perfect. Inhabited by emigrants from Arabic and African countries, full of high-rises, it resembles a ghetto. We see this world from the perspective of the new policeman Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), who joins two more experienced colleagues. Chris (co-writer of the film Alexis Manenti), known as Pink Pig, is an alpha male, his behaviour is on the verge of the law, he loves to put people in the corner. Gwada (Djebril Zonga) has African roots and grew up in this district. The new one gets a new nickname quickly and is put to another test by his colleagues so that he can quickly grasp the surrounding reality. It starts with an innocent looking search of teenagers smoking cigarettes, but the characters’ behaviour will escalate, leading to tragedy.

Set over two days Les Misérables successfully combines the conventions of a police thriller in the style of Training Day and the socially engaged realistic cinema alá La Haine, perfectly keeping you in suspense. Dramas hang in the air, deftly unloaded by occasional humorous dialogues. The camera brilliantly guides us through the nooks and crannies of the district, using various techniques (handheld shots, drone shots, quick editing), showing colourful characters from different groups. La Maire (Steve Tchentchieu) runs the local market and deals cards in the African community. There is a Muslim brotherhood led by a converted gangster. There are also Gypsies with a missing lion cub from a traveling circus. And while these figures seem to deal the cards in Montfermeil, the film’s shocking finale seems to be telling you otherwise. The marginalised and instrumentalized by them children and youth of immigrants are fed up with being a pawn in the game. The thread of two young boys of this generation, Issa and Buzz, perfectly sums up this look. „You won’t be able to contain their anger,” one of the men tells the policeman. Prophetic words.

In this engaging spectacle, which the director developed on the basis of his short film with the same title, one can see a few weaknesses. The plot focuses on male characters, avoiding the female perspective like fire. Also, the emphasis on the point of view of the policemen seems to take away such an important voice from the younger generation.

UPDATE: I wrote this review over a year ago. The film, which may not be the best for me in several technical aspects, certainly has an important message, which, unfortunately, it turns out, is still valid.

Score: 7/10

Les Misérables is out in cinemas in the UK and Ireland from September 11th 2020.

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