Les Miserables. 2019
Directed by Ladj Ly
Starring Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Steve Tientcheu, Jeanne Balibar, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Almamy Kanoute, Nizar Ben Fatma, Raymond Lopez, Luciano Lopez, Jaihson Lopez, Sana Joachaim, Lucas Omiri, and Rocco Lopez
Stéphane joined the Anti-Crime Brigade of Montfermeil, in the 93. He meets his new teammates, Chris and Gwada, and discovers the tensions between the different groups of the district.
Less singing, more rioting appears to be the credence for documentary filmmaker Ladj Ly’s debut feature, Les Miserables, which basically depicts injustice in modern times with Montfermeil citizens just as miserable, if not more. It’s a relentlessly chaotic effort that, not surprisingly, pays enough attention to detail regarding the rundown impoverished neighborhood (especially the children playing sports or shooting water guns) that the authenticity almost feels like a documentary. However, at the center of the narrative are three anti-crime officers that have the weight of the proceedings placed on their shoulders, only to emerge as somewhat multidimensional but less interesting than every other aspect of the film orbiting their rambunctious antics.
It doesn’t help that the introduction to these numerous characters (most of what don’t matter and feel tremendously cut down somewhere in the editing room) is messy, preventing Les Miserables to establish what it’s actually about for nearly the entire first act (aside from a day in the lives of the officers patrolling this area). It’s clear that there are warring factions, children that are not getting the education they deserve subsequently getting sucked into bad habits, and a corrupt police system that chooses to use brute force and racism to remain feared, even if they view it as being respected. Also present are some eccentricities such as a traveling circus gang with the company of lions, and to make matters more bizarre one of the cubs gets roped into the danger.
Damien Bonnard is Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz, the newest addition to the force and the only levelheaded member of the team that actively avoids violence and generally misusing his authority. He still has his frustrating moments, but there is at least someone to morally latch onto as a beacon of potential good during what basically amounts to 95 minutes of police brutality, including an accidental shooting of a black child. Les Miserables is based on similar French riots from 2005, but watching the movie there’s an unshakable sensation that you can also turn on the news and watch the American version of this story.
Nevertheless, the actions of these hotheaded law enforcers are captured from another young child’s drone, which leads the three squadmates in hot pursuit to obtain the memory card and destroy all evidence of their heinous crimes. Chris (Alexis Manenti) is the most aggressive of the bunch, frequently hurling bigoted obscenities and threats against any man, woman, or child that doesn’t recognize his status as the law itself. The character and performance slightly border on comical, but there are grounded moments that see him tending to his daughters and unwinding by drinking a beer after a long day of work. His methods are not righteous, but if Les Miserables does one thing right, it’s portraying this as a terrible situation to be in from all angles. For all we know, Chris was once Stephane; a do-gooder that thought he could make a difference by appropriately wielding his authority and enacting civility wherever he could. The way things are now, it’s a fight for survival.
An all-out war is where Les Miserables inevitably leads, and while the direction is commanded with white knuckle intensity, Ladj Ly is unsuccessful at constructing a strong narrative up until that point for it to resonate as anything beyond a horrific situation to watch unfold. Miraculously, he does generate a slight bit of sympathy for his most cruel characters such as Chris, but it’s still a movie that focuses on all of the wrong characters. Les Miserables is tense and well-executed, unfortunately under the impression that police brutality should be seen from the lens of the attackers while skipping out on actual character development. It looks real, the action is frighteningly staged, and the performances themselves are unhinged, but it’s all in the service of a story that doesn’t know what it wants to say. Admittedly, it is a miserable experience for the right reasons.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com