Cannes, Movie Review

Les Miserables (2019) by Ladj Ly

Original Name: Les Miserables

Director: Ladj Ly

Debut at: May 2019 (103 min)

Country: France (French)

IMDB Link: https://imdb.com/title/tt10199590/

While the title is indeed based on the classic title by Victor Hugo, this is not a direct adaptation to that story. It refers to the neighborhood of Montfermeil in Paris suburban, where Victor Hugo wrote parts of his classic in. As such, Les Miserables isn’t about miserable people, it doesn’t focus about people to begin with, but much more about the neighborhood, a commune where the majority of people are black. It’s all the more telling that the first-time director, Ladj Ly (a rarity for Main Competition), is a local and thus experience all the events that inspired him to make this movie. Les Miserables is told in a matter-of-fact tone of someone who truly experience it inside-out as it details a few days in this community through multiple perspective, but most notably from the Anti-Crime Squad point of view. Quite conveniently, which for me is one of a few Les Mis’s weak links, we get introduced to this settings through the eyes of newly-transferred police Stephane (Rester Vertical’s Damien Bonnard) as he goes through his first day patrolling the area, which quickly escalate to something uncontrollable.

The beginning, then, serves as a excellent introduction where we see the rare moments where all French people united and harmonious, because the rest is an examine of how the tension between the order and the citizen can explode at anytime. It’s a footage of millions of French celebrate France National Football team winning the 2018 World Cup. As we follow the Squad going through their daily routine, we can see a lot of underlying issues. There are crimes, power abusement, harassment and it goes on as natural as if they are just the way things are. Although told through multiple perspectives, the main storyline is neat. We see things unfold methodically before it comes to a gripping conclusion. The film’s best strength is where it draws the tension between several fragments from the community, either from the police who just lose it, the circus man who lost his lion cub, or the citizen who is often oppressed that they can’t take it anymore. The handheld camera approach really help intensify the conflicts where it often feels like we’re anticipating the events. Take the scene where the cops having to fight against the angry kids (which will serve as a major turning point), the camera keeps circling around. It’s chaos and the Ladj Ly’s sure-hand helps magnifying the tension throughout.

For the most parts, Les Miserables succeeds on hinging many underlying problems about this commune, and in a larger sense, France. The police oppressing citizen, mostly kids through fear (mostly by Chris, Stephane’s teammate) is not an issue that can taken lightly, and things get much more complicated when they try to cover up an act they messed up. Even the black mayor, just like the cops (in which the neighbor regards him as “Our Obama”), uses any mean to further protect his power. In fact, the only sensible person is a leader of Muslim Brotherhood, who refuses to use his power for his advantage. It sure is that Les Miserables doesn’t lack of ambition.

Another strength this film has is that even if it stretches itself a bit here and there, it slowly builds up towards its final confrontation. It’s a gripping climax, but one that we are totally anticipated. On the negative side, the subplot of the losing lion cub don’t mesh too well with the tone of the film, so is the meeting between Stephane and his other teammate, but the acting is convincing overall, especially from the kids. It’s not merely a black film either, more that it’s a film that examine this little commune to address about a bigger picture, about the conflicts between the citizen and the law that can spark fire if they receive enough fuel. Les Miserables is terrifying because it feels all too real.

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