Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is a far cry from the musical that popularized the tale of star-crossed love and political upheaval in revolutionary France. This one is more akin to a Spike Lee joint, full of fury and poignancy, pitting cop against criminal, youth against adult in a twisted tale of revenge and redemption.
Set in Montfermeil, the Parisian suburb where Victor Hugo wrote his celebrated novel, the story is chaos seen through the eyes of a rookie cop confronting the various battle-lines that exist in the community. Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) has just transferring to the location to be close to his kid, as that’s where his ex-wife has moved. He’s shown the ropes by a boorish, high-strung cop named Chris (Alexis Manenti) who feels more like a movie stereotype than actual police officer, though I fear that’s wishful thinking as some with power do lean towards this kind of sociopathy.
Chris and his taciturn partner, Gwada (Djibril Zonga), patrol their streets, confronting school kids, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and a gangster-Mayor (Steve Tienthcheu) who helps keep a lid on things. When tension boils over (in part because of a stolen lion cub), the area becomes inflamed. Thanks to errant drone footage, the worry of being exposed overcomes any moral concerns or procedural restrictions.
A lot of story gets drawn out with this myriad of characters. The best parts of the film by far are its richly drawn textures. Unfortunately, it ends up slipping away on narrative grounds, particularly with the inelegantly written inclusion of firearms that come in only at the last minute, deflating tension as violence is allowed to erupt without a pistol ever being drawn. It’s the equivalent of having a cell phone in a horror film to get out of a dodgy situation, except here the limitations are even more artificial.
The storyline lets the film down, but it still works as a general metaphor for the way differing communities interact. This is the face of France, evidenced by documentary-like shots of the entire nation applauding the shared experience of winning the World Cup. Les Misérables is flawed, but it has elements that profoundly speak to its changing country and the people that call it home, indicative of the massive political turmoil that continues to play out on the streets. It may not live up to Spike Lee’s greatest works, but the film at least strives to be something more than a run-of-the-mill crime thriller, taking inspiration from Hugo’s novel to update the demands of change for a new generation.