Les Misérables, the French submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language, is not another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel. This feature debut from director Ladj Ly is an intricate look inside the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, one of the major locations mentioned in Hugo’s text where modern inequality and police corruption are parallel to the conditions recorded in 1862.
The film opens as French citizens are celebrating the 2018 win of the World Cup. The sea of blue, white, and red shines with the golden sun as the sound of the crowd screaming with joy compliments the visuals. This celebration coincides with Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) first day as a cop in Montfermeil. As an outsider who is new to the area, Ruiz acts as the neutral point-of-view through which the audience gets to experience the intricate tension that exists between the anti-crime police squad and the residents of this suburb.
Chris (Alexis Manenti), the head of the unit, is despicable, a compilation of all things toxic. He prides himself in the nickname “The Pink Pig” which was originally an insult utilized by the neighborhood kids. Chris constantly disregards protocol and purposely picks on young girls, using his power as a police officer to feed his own ego. The unbalanced power structure is complicated as the Chris’s long term partner, Gwada (Djibril Zonga) is a Black man who grew up in the burdensome and cruel community of Montfermeil. As the plot continues, and the existing tension continues to get thick and claustrophobic, the detailed commentary Ly has encrypted within the language of cinema becomes more and more complicated.
Les Misérables feels like reality. The subplots and events that occur in the run time come straight from Ly’s experience living in Montfermeil which are complemented by the director’s documentary style. Though the incidents in the film are inspired by actual situations, making it specific to the outskirts of Paris, the misuse of power by law enforcement is relevant to so many cities, regions, and countries. This film is powerful in its subtlety, containing depth within its numerous layers that can be pulled back in order to understand more of the sociological and political meaning that is threaded throughout. The more a viewer commits to thinking about the visual imagery that is presented, the more a viewer will be able to comprehend.
In no way is this first feature by Ly a perfect project. There are small structural details that are necessary for the way the story has been built up but are flawed in the execution. This can be expected in a film with a dense amount of theoretical subtext that comment on the current state of oppressive systems. Overall, these minuscule moments do not distract from the more important message that is stitched into every shot and movement therefore a learning curve can be applied to Ly’s first full-length venture into fiction.
Through all the injustice that is shown on screen comes the hope that is represented in the spirits of the kids from the neighborhood. The performances of Al-Hassan Ly as Buzz and Issa Perica as Issa are emotionally gripping and essential to the success of this reclaiming of the term ‘les misérables‘. I applaud Ladj Ly for utilizing his artistic medium in attempt to advocate for his community and I hope that Les Misérables inspires other individuals to use their voice to comment on current events with a movie camera in their hand.