Les Miserables movie review: This Damien Bonnard starrer is part police procedural, part socio-political commentary.
Les Miserables movie cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Maneti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Raymond Lopez, Al-Hassan Ly, Almamy Kanoute
Les Miserables movie director: Ladj Ly
Les Miserables movie rating: 3.5 stars
Borrowing the title of one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, for a contemporary film, can seem like overkill. But when Ladj Ly’s handheld cameras start rolling down the tough Parisian suburb Montfermeil, tensions rising each minute, you begin to understand why the debutant director has done such a thing: his subjects may be removed from Hugo’s by more than two hundred years, but the misery still exists.
Ly’s eye, never still, always restless, alights upon the poor and the dispossessed, almost all belonging to the immigrant communities who have been forced onto the outskirts of one of the glitziest capitals of the Western world. This is common to the marginalised all over the world. The message handed out to them being simply this: we are not happy about this but if you must insist on being where we are, fine, but let us not see you. It comes as no surprise then, that Ly was raised in the neighbourhood he has shot in; and again no surprise that the very same neighbourhood inspired Hugo’s classic as well.
The film is part police procedural, part socio-political commentary. Stephane (Bonnard) joins an anti-crime patrol unit consisting of the hard-as-nails, cynical Chris (Maneti) and Gwada (Zonga), and we see them circling the streets: it is a daily sweep, and clearly most of the residents are known to the cops, as they swap what seems like harmless banter but which is laced with resentment and anger.
A prank by a young boy called Issa (erica) is the catalyst for real trouble, which spills out from the high-rises filled with people living a hand-to-mouth existence, to the streets lined by kids old enough to be in school, too young to be hoodlums. Racial and religious slurs are flung about, not just amongst the residents who are aligned with their own, but amongst the cops. Stephane, the most compassionate of the trio, finds himself at odds with his colleagues, and in a corner: ‘you do not rat out your partners’. That is an unwritten rule.
Stephane is the moral centre of this roiling universe, which the film captures beautifully and powerfully. It’s bad enough to see adults fighting like silly children, but your heart turns heavy when you see armies of kids and teens, their faces hidden behind make-shift masks, range themselves against the cops, who wield power like a weapon.
The film closes with a strong image. A cop with a cocked gun, pleading for his, and his colleagues’ lives facing the implacable eyes of a child, holding a burning ember. Will he fling it? Or not? You find yourself in the middle, hoping for safety. Hoping that the child dials back. Hoping that the cop doesn’t have to shoot. Hoping for sanity. For the Miserables, everywhere.