Fun fact; Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables was one of the first films I ever covered on this blog way back when I was fresher faced, less cynical, and judging by the content of the review itself, significantly less adept at writing! With those memories and a quick jolt “oh fuck, I’m thirty” running through the mind, it was time to turn attentions to a film of the same name. Not an adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic, but certainly a picture filled with knowing references and links.
Hitting UK (home) screens this week off the back of a Best International Feature Film nomination at February’s Academy Awards, Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables tells that story of a hectic and drama filled day in Paris suburb Montfermeil, once the writing location and partial setting of Hugo’s 1862 novel, now an impoverished commune home to poor Parisians of majority African and Arabic descent.
In the aftermath of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Final, police officer Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) starts his first day of patrols, partnered with the unpredictable and hostile duo Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). Seemingly looking for trouble as a means to antagonise, the officers soon become embroiled in a tense conflict between local residents and visiting circus gypsies, from whom a lion cub has been stolen. The narrative unfolds in a recognisable crime thriller kind of way, with lots of powerful drama and effective foreshadowing that builds to an edge of the seat climax that, in the best way possible, took me by surprise.
Much like its more famous namesake, Les Misérables provides a multi faceted account of the fate of the poor, sometimes at the hands of one another, but more prominently at the hands of reckless authority. In an extremely poignant juxtaposition, the film opens up with wild celebrations of togetherness at the France’s World Cup victory, all races and cultures draped in the flag, pure joy the overriding emotion. What the film then does is one by one, peel back the layers of Parisian society, separating all into their prejudice defining categories. White, black, Middle Eastern. Rich, poor. Christian, Muslim. Male, female. Powerful, helpless. This is certainly not the Paris of Audrey Hepburn or Woody Allen.
I can’t say that every single element within the story works, but on the whole, the film is a powerful and sobering experience with some interesting stylistic flair in crucial places. It’s an undoubtedly enthralling watch, but I’m not entirely sure the filmmaker succeeded in their ambition to showcase the spectrum of good on both sides (if that was their ambition at all). As the ‘new cop on the block’, Ruiz is supposed to be the moral compass for the audience, but he lets far too much slide for me to like him or have him as a some kind of ‘some police are okay’ bastion.
The Wire is arguably one of the greatest television series, if not the greatest television series, of all time. Whilst Les Misérables can’t exactly claim that level of greatness, there is definitely a vibe that can be felt between the two. A grittiness, a focus on corruption, a focus on realism with extra punches of drama when needed.
The film doesn’t really feature any standout performances of note, taking more of an ensemble route with various supporting characters coming together to create a real sense of tension and diversity across the narrative’s work day timespan. As newcomer Ruiz, Damien Bonnard is the closest thing the audience gets to a surrogate, but as mentioned above, even then I found much of his decision making to be far from heroic.
As a trio, Bonnard alongside Djebril Zonga as the surly Gwada and Alexis Manenti as the vindictive wildcard Chris create a tense and friction filled dynamic. Police figures who are on one side of the spectrum too passive, and on the other side far too intoxicated with their power.
Providing some of those season four Wire vibes is Issa Perica playing (aptly) Issa, the young boy at the centre of the lion cub stealing furore. This appears to be his first acting credit, and he does extremely well in a pivotal role. It feels very much like the rest of the assorted child and teenage cast involved were also first timers, and this really helps to give the film that edge of authenticity and reality that makes for such a believable watching experience.
Overall, Les Misérables is an arresting and at times incredibly powerful drama that exposes a side of the ‘city of love’ that you certainly won’t find in the copious romantic comedies and whimsical jaunts that use it at a dream destination. Scratch a little at the Eiffel Tower covered surface and you will find elements of Paris that are far from desirable and postcard worthy. This picture isn’t perfect, but it serves as a strong reminder that the fate of the city’s most vulnerable hasn’t changed as much since 1862 as we might like to imagine.