Movie Review ~ Les Misérables (2019)

The Facts

Synopsis: Stéphane has recently joined the Anti-Crime squad in Montfermeil, a sensitive district of the Paris projects. Paired up with Chris and Gwada whose methods are sometimes unorthodox, he rapidly discovers the tensions between the various neighborhood groups. When the trio finds themselves overrun during the course of an arrest, a drone begins filming every move they make.

Stars: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Percia, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almany Kanoute, Nizar Ben Fatma

Director: Ladj Ly

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I wish I could be one of those people that say I took my love of musical theater to its greatest lengths and read all 2,783 pages of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables.  After all, the stage show is one of my all time favorite pieces of theater and while I know it’s ‘80s infiltration of pop culture and the influence it had on Broadway moving forward was seen by some as ghastly, I can’t help but continue to be moved by its overarching message of mercy and kindness.  I didn’t need to read the book, however, to see how this new movie had designs on tying itself back to that novel in more ways that just its title.

Director Ladj Ly grew up in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil which happens to be the same place Hugo wrote the majority of his classic novel that documented the struggle of life taking place at that time.  Inspired in the aftermath of the 2005 Paris riots and the continued divide between the black/minority communities and the police force, Ly collaborated with two other men for a short film that formed the basis for what would become the feature length drama that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019.  Sharing the Grand Jury Prize (awarded to a film that didn’t take the top award but was still singled out for its impact), it was picked up by Amazon Studios for US Distribution around the same time France decided it would be their submission for the Oscars.  Last week…it made the cut as everyone expected it would.

So what about the film has swept people away so much that they have singled it out time and again throughout film festivals and award nominations these past seven months?  At first, Ly’s movie starts out like a number of other police procedurals following an officer from the country (Damien Bonnard, Dunkirk) on his first day on a special task force having his eyes opened to the tough reality of life in the poor neighborhoods and the razor’s edge violence of the city.  The officer, Stéphane, is quiet and observant, all the better for his partners, the abrasive Chris (Alexis Manenti, who co-wrote the short and the feature) and the easy-going Gwada (Djibril Zonga), to take advantage of.

Throughout a taut 36 hours, the three men traverse the projects and wind up creating more problems than they find.  From a troublesome mayor (Steve Tientcheu) that uses muscle instead of policy to get what he wants to a traveling troupe of circus performers that have had a lion cub stolen and favor a black Muslim group for the crime, the officers have their hands full.  Complicating matters further is the ever-presence of neighborhood children who taunt them, making sure they know they are watching and whose fear of the authorities dissipates once they realize there’s only so much strong-arming the law can take.

As the film progresses you can see how Ly has set a lot of clever snares along the way and when he starts to close them all around the characters the movie takes on a whole different feel.  That’s when things really start to get interesting and unpredictable as we don’t know which side to take, both seem to have their good and bad qualities, but no one is ever completely in the right.  When you’re in that grey zone, how do you identify the black and white of it all?  Adding in modern technology, a drone owned by a boy from the projects records an act of violence and becomes a lynchpin into the fates and futures of a number of the characters we’ve met.

Hugo’s novel set up the people of Montfermeil as striving for something better but finding it impossible to get ahead and Ly seems to be showing that not much has changed in the hundred years since.  Though both Hugo’s and Ly’s Les Misérables are works of fiction, they were inspired by what the authors were seeing right outside their own front doors and that’s something to take note of.  The final twenty minutes of the film feel like a completely different movie and I’m not sure if I enjoyed them quite as much as what had come before.  There’s an awfully good shot of a sunset that could have been the place to stop…but it must have been an intentional choice for that small sleight of hand of a fake out ending in light of setting us up for what is to come next.  I understand why Ly had to finish the way he did from a narrative standpoint, though, because the ending will be fodder for good discussion over dinner or drinks after.

In another year, I could see Les Misérables being a strong contender for taking home the gold on Oscar night but it’s up against strong competition this year from Macedonia (Honeyland), Spain (Pain and Glory) and the almost assured winner from Korea, Parasite.  Just to be included in this strong list is an accomplishment and Ly is another filmmaker with a strong voice we’ll want to keep an eye on because I can see him telling more socially conscious stories in future films.

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