Pointedly repurposing the title of Victor Hugo’s classic novel about the laws of nature and grace, Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables” bears little outward resemblance to the epic story of Jean Valjean and his stolen loaf of bread. But Ly’s first narrative feature — a gripping and grounded procedural that probes the tensions between Paris’ anti-crime police and the poor Muslim population they torment and suppress — revisits the French suburb of Montfermeil in the present day, and finds that little has changed in the 150 years since Hugo first characterized the strife he saw through his bedroom window.
Extended from Ly’s short of the same name, and inspired by the riots that erupted at the foot of the filmmaker’s building in 2005, “Les Misérables” vibrates with the kind of unshakeable verisimilitude that can only be earned through first-hand experience. At the same time, it’s not like the movie can pretend to be a sui generis portrait of social injustice. Ly doesn’t hide the fact that he obviously grew up on “La Haine,” nor does the powderkeg of a script he co-wrote with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti shy away from unavoidable comparisons to “Do the Right Thing.” The film even drifts into “Law & Order” territory at certain points, as a b-plot about a stolen lion cub is only elevated above cable TV fare on the considerable strength of Julien Poupard’s widescreen cinematography.
His pulse-pounding lenswork is never more tactile and kinetic than in the breathtaking prologue, which begins the film on an unsustainable note of nation-wide unity. It’s mid-July 2018, and virtually every living person in Paris has taken to the streets in order to celebrate France’s World Cup championship. Poupard’s camera is trained on a Muslim boy named Issa (Issa Perica), who he bounds out of the projects with the Tricolour streaming behind him like a cape. The euphoric kid races towards the orgiastic sea of humanity as it pours towards the Arc de Triomphe and temporarily dissolves all manner of socioeconomic divisions along the way. It’s a beautiful scene, but France can’t win the World Cup every day. Issa is old enough to know that all of this joy will harden back into hostility when the sun comes up the next morning.
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And the film’s three plainclothes officers are nothing if not harbingers of darkness. Hugo wrote that “society is culpable in not providing a free education for all, and it must answer for the night which it produces.” These cops are essentially tasked with keeping the curtains drawn. They’re not villains, per se, but that’s only because Ly shares Hugo’s conviction that it’s only so helpful to blame the symptoms of a systemic disease (to quote the film’s closing text: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators”).
Chris (Alexis Manenti) sure isn’t a hero. A toxically masculine racist who harasses teenage girls for his own amusement, he’s the id of the story’s three stooges. Stéphane (“Staying Vertical” actor Damien Bonnard) represents the resident superego, as well as the audience’s proxy for most of the film. He’s the new guy on the team — “Les Misérables” rather conveniently takes place on his first day back in Paris — and brings a certain moral fervor to situations that don’t have room for it. Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a handsome man with a tender heart and an itchy trigger finger, is the closest thing they have to an ego, and his agonized performance finds a soul in a movie that’s largely powered by the raw muscularity of its filmmaking.
It’s Gwada who fires a flashbang into Issa’s face when the cops are surrounded by a mob of agitated kids, even if it’s Chris who loses his mind when they notice that a boy has captured the whole thing on video with the drone he likes to fly from the housing development’s roof (at long last, a movie in which the footage is actually motivated by action!). It’s Stéphane who’s most determined to return things to the status quo, even if he’s lucid enough to recognize the violence inherent in maintaining “the peace.” His good intentions are the first thing to catch fire as the movie builds towards its incendiary conclusion.
And while “Les Misérables” might appear to end on an ambiguous note, Ly’s narrative is strengthened by how forcefully it maintains the idea that the police need the projects more than the projects need the police. The film itself bears that out from start to finish, as the Muslim characters are all that save it from a lethal dose of hackneyed police banter and posturing; even the great Jeanne Balibar, cameoing as a stern but sexually assertive commanding officer, is caught up in cliché.
But the people of Montfermeil all feel more observed than written. Steve Tientcheu delivers a memorable performance as “the mayor” of the neighborhood, who wants to do right by his residents without putting them in harm’s way. Almamy Kanoute is warm but imposing as a well-informed restaurant owner whose posture reflects the volatility of the area, and whose deadpan humor opens the door to some much-needed levity.
But it’s Perica’s bloodied face that might lend the film its most indelible image, as the kid’s feline smile hardens into a horrifying scowl. He’s going to be angry for the rest of his life, and the consequences of that anger are already devastating enough to suggest that Chris and his goon squad are causing more harm than good. Stressing the broad topicality of Issa’s story in order to weaponize its basic timelessness, “Les Misérables” refuses to blame the match or the kindle for a world that’s fueled by the fires they start together, and the scalding final sequence of Ly’s film is powerful enough to obliterate the occasionally clumsy path by which it gets there.
“Les Misérables” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.