The giddy joy and strong sense of unity that pulsates throughout the opening montage of Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is as stirring as it is fleeting. A black kid dashes with his friends onto the Paris Metro, flying over turnstiles like a superhero as they rush to a crowded bar to watch France compete in the World Cup. They roar along as their team wins and pours out into the streets to join the crowds in front of the Arc de Triomphe. One of the boys wears a tricolor flag like a cape, joining what looks like a unifying wave of national pride.
Several minutes later, Ly makes it clear that this sense of comity is little more than a bad joke. Following the ephemeral joy of the 2018 World Cup win, the film shifts into what looks at first like a somewhat traditionally gritty cop narrative. Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is the newest member of the Street Crimes Unit, or S.C.U., a tactical police unit assigned to Montfermeil, one of the poverty-stricken suburbs, or banlieues, that ring Paris. They patrol the grim, graffiti-splattered concrete housing towers and try to maintain a delicate balance between competing vectors of power, from various gangster factions to Nigerian pimps and a devout cohort of the Muslim Brotherhood proselytizing the neighborhood’s rambunctious kids.
Serving as a stand-in for the audience as he’s introduced to the area’s problems and main players by Chris (co-writer Alexis Manenti), his unctuously sarcastic and racist superior, Ruiz is also one of the few moral anchors in a film where nearly all the adults appear to have been debased by greed, fear, or cynicism. Already uneasy with Chris’s quasi-legal cowboy swagger, Ruiz grows more uncertain as he’s made witness to the small corrupt deals that the S.C.U. uses to supposedly keep peace in the neighborhood. While Ruiz is bombarded with Chris’s off-color gags—laughed off by their third partner, Gwada (Djibril Zonga), who, like Ly, is of Malian descent and appears to be swallowing his pride in every scene—the filmmaker sprinkles in other more meandering elements that will lead to the third act’s surprise detonation.
Issa (Issa Perica), one of the boys glimpsed in the opening montage, is a perennial troublemaker. He kills time with his friends, and at one point is brought to the police station by his father for stealing hens from a Romanian. Meanwhile, the quiet Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) spends most of his time on one of the projects’ rooftops using his drone to spy on girls. His omnipresent camera proves crucial when the S.C.U. unit gets into a scrape after an attempt to arrest Issa for stealing a lion cub from a nearby circus and things quickly go sideways.
Ly knows how to pile stressors onto his characters until they’re practically vibrating with tension. But he goes beyond simply putting Chris, Ruiz, and Gwada through their Training Day-like paces, following each of them home to show how the varyingly bleak conditions within further roil their already tense and suspicious mindsets. The filmmaker shoots most of Les Misérables with a crisp verisimilitude that comes from having grown up in the area and gone through most of the situations he dramatizes. But a few elements here feel over the top compared to the more careful drama that characterizes much of the film, such as the somewhat distracting absurdity of having so much of the plot hinge on the theft of a lion cub.
Nevertheless, as one of the only French films besides Matheiu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan to deal frankly with the powder keg of systemic poverty and how it’s exacerbated by racism and one’s place of residence, Les Misérables is a remarkably potent and vivid piece of work that smuggles a kinetically political social realism inside its police-drama format. Bitterly cynical for the most part, with the occasional nod to some of the characters’ sense of right and wrong, the film serves as both caustic update to Victor Hugo’s 1862 monolithic novel of the same name, brightly illustrating the perennial nature of its themes of oppression and uprising, and cautionary tale about the future.
While it excoriates the corruption and unthinking brutality of the police, Ly’s film isn’t naïve about what happens when the oppressed fight back. “Who did their anger serve in 2005?” Ruiz asks of Almamy Kanoute’s reformed jihadi, trying to ward off wider violence by evoking that year’s anti-police protests that might have briefly focused worldwide attention on issues in the banlieues but ultimately led to little systemic change. Ly aims wider with his critique, ultimately pointing at nearly all the adults in Montfermeil, who squabble over turf and respect while ignoring or belittling the restive youth in their midst. The conclusion, a head-snapping reversal of suburban-children-in-revolt narratives like Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 film Over the Edge and J.G. Ballard’s 1988 novella Running Wild, doesn’t suggest that such eruptions will provide catharsis or solutions, it just promises that their kind of chaos is inevitable.
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