Similar to Do The Right Thing, Les Misérables ends with an ellipsis, allowing the audience to continue the conversation off-screen after they’ve left the theater. The finale is explosive, with a final image that will be seared into your memory, but it is the film that precedes this image that provides a fascinating context for what the film intends. It’s as if Ladj Ly remade Do The Right Thing, set it in France, and not only captured the perspective of the neighborhood, but also the police officers, so when events escalate and we see the police take actions that are indefensible, the perspective that Ly provides feels complicated, marred by our own sense of sympathy for the characters we have come to understand.
Les Misérables is brave in its filmmaking choices, a critique of the system that is suffocating communities and what can happen when provoked. While the film does take place in 2018, it makes reference to the riots that took place in France in 2005, which Ly was witness to outside his bedroom window. This is Ly’s story on what can cause a community to explode. Sometimes, anger is the only voice that can rise above the monotony of directionless dialogue, and this is a film about that anger.
While the film does derive its name from the Victor Hugo novel and does take place in the same area of Paris in which it was written, the film is not an adaptation of the novel. Ladj Ly borrowed the name, paid homage with its setting, and then created his own version of modern-day France and the tensions that exist underneath the surface, waiting to boil over and eviscerate whatever provokes it. The film starts with the celebration to France winning the FIFA World Cup in 2018, and Ly places us right in the middle of the action with a camera that’s in constant motion, showing us the unity of the people of France, celebrating together, draping themselves in the flag and belting “La Marseillaise,” and yet, the choice of music that envelopes this scene is foreboding in its violin string, never allowing us to feel comfortable. When the movie begins, it is that tense violin string sets the tempo for what follows.
The story follows a small police team of 3 officers, 2 veterans, and one newbie, as they patrol the impoverished suburb of Montfermeil, populated primarily by African Muslims. Chris (Alexis Manenti), a white Frenchman, thinks of himself as a cowboy who runs the town, always starting trouble and never backing down. Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a black man who grew up in the area, speaks the language and is great at diffusing tension started by Chris. And then we have Corporal Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), along for the ride for the first time, with slicked-back hair that earns him the nickname ‘Greaser’ and a quiet demeanor that he must learn to overcome. On this long day, we get a firsthand view of these small microaggressions that bubble underneath the surface waiting for the opportunity to truly erupt from the crevices of a community whose voice is not heard. And when these kids and teenagers are provided the reason to release the anger that burns within them, it provides a crackling finale that felt inevitable, yet our own perspective feels confused because Ladj Ly never tells us who we should be rooting for.
By following both the police officers and the kids in the community, the film never allows itself to indulge in its own subjective point of view. This is a film about how even if anger won’t accomplish what we need it to accomplish, as characters point out when discussing the 2005 riots and how we’re back in the same place, that anger is sometimes the only voice that we’re afforded, so we might as well use it. Ly walks a fine line by allowing us to sympathize with police officers who cross lines, and instead of scapegoating them as villains, he chooses to make a bigger point about how the officers are victims of this system themselves, imploring the necessity to burn down the flawed foundation in order to start building something new.
Les Miserables feels documentarian in its intimacy, a handheld camera trapped within moments juxtaposed with a drone capturing the city from above, with a tense buzz underneath the bristling dialogue and moments of naturalism. The film never allows itself to relax, even if we’re just chilling in the back of a cop car, watching these 3 men banter. Ly uses the camera to create a mounting sense of dread within the nuance of its movements, with a story that unfolds and puts pieces into place that will eventually collide. A lion cub is stolen from a circus, these white gypsies want it back, and what this eventually leads to as the dominos begin to crumble is a burst of visceral emotion that comes from isolation and loneliness.
The police officers are just half the story. The other half comes from the characters we are introduced to and get to follow around as Ly creates this sense of place. Issa Perica plays a young kid named Issa, maybe in his early teens, who becomes the catalyst for the eventual climax, and the personal loneliness and isolation encased within his stoic façade is haunting. There’s Buzz, played by Ladj Ly’s son Al-Hassan Ly, who is the one operating the drone. He mostly uses it to spy on his female neighbors, but he does choose to hover above the streets in order to capture the vibe of the city, and he gets a recording of something that he maybe shouldn’t have. Then there’s The Mayor, who is the authority even though his authority feels false and fleeting, and Saleh, the owner of a food joint, that will pop up throughout, feeling like an homage to Do The Right Thing, even though it serves a different purpose here. Ladj Ly creates a vivid image of a city brimming with unaddressed friction, and when the firecracker is lit, we’re just waiting for it to pop.
Ladj Ly refuses to point fingers at his characters, instead opting to highlight a systemic form of oppression that allows for this boiling pot of anger to exist, and as Ly leaves us with a haunting image matched with a quote, we are meant to weed through our own prejudices and perspectives in order to understand what we just watched. This film is challenging in its blunt abrasiveness, but it is also rewarding in its emotional complexity, leaving me lost and confused about my own perspective on the climax because the film provided a lasting image without nudging me in any one direction. A truly bold piece of filmmaking.
Review: Les Misérables
Ladj Ly creates a vivid image of a city brimming with unaddressed friction, and when the firecracker is lit, we’re just waiting for it to pop.