Movie Review: Les Misérables (2019)

French filmmaker Ladj Ly’s first feature film is a doozy. Blending Victor Hugo’s classic story of the underclass and police injustice with events inspired by the riots that took place in banlieues (suburbs) across France in the fall of 2005, he has created a film that will leave you speechless (in a good way) when the final credits roll.

Squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti, who shares the screenwriting credit along with Ly and Giordano Gederlini) and brigadier Gwada (Djebril Zonga) are members of an anti-crime unit that is based in the Paris suburb of Montfermeil, a place that is now home to rows of rundown housing blocks filled with immigrant families from north and central Africa. It’s the Wild West there as different groups all jockey for control. There’s “the Mayor”, who regularly shakes down the neighbourhood’s outdoor bazaar stall owners if they’re seen as being too successful; the Muslim Brotherhood, who try to keep the local boys in check while they indoctrinate them at the mosque; a restaurant owner who turned to Islam while in prison but still holds tremendous influence in the community; the go-to guy who gets called upon to fix other people’s messes and more. As one steamy, summer day begins, Chris and Gwada are joined by a new member, Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), who recently moved to Paris from the provinces. The men drive around the neighbourhood giving Ruiz the lay of the land and it’s not long before Chris shows Ruiz that he’s not all that different from Hugo’s Inspector Javert. In Chris’ mind, he is the law and the law is just.

News quickly comes that the Romani circus’ lion cub has been stolen and tempers begin to flare with the circus owner threatening to return with his guys and shoot the area up if the cub isn’t brought back immediately. Chris tracks the cub to a local boy who is always getting himself into trouble. When they try to snatch the boy up, chaos ensues and the situation goes terribly wrong. That’s not the worst of their problems though. Another boy has filmed the incident using his drone. Now the chase is on to get drone’s memory card before any of the other power players in the neighbourhood do.

LES MISÉRABLES shows that although plenty has changed in Montfermeil in 150 years, not much has changed at all. Gone are the bawdy taverns and the university students who dream of a brighter future but the class divide is just as wide as ever. Ly shoots the film in a near-documentary style with plenty of close-ups, giving both the story and the characters rich authenticity. A lot happens in the film’s 103 minutes and there isn’t a wasted shot. Though the film’s opening of the Montfermeil boys celebrating France’s 2018 World Cup victory with the rest of Paris seems unnecessary as we watch it, as the story goes on we come to understand that although these boys are born in France and see themselves as being French, in Chris’ – and in others’ – eyes, they’re not and they never will be. Ly, who himself is the son of immigrants from Mali and who grew up in Montfermeil, knows first-hand what that feels like.

Unlike Hugo’s version, LES MISÉRABLES provides no solutions and no happy or even bittersweet ending but it does offer up a prescient quote from the noted author as a post script. This is pure grit but it’s powerful, and the story will certainly stick with you long after the movie ends.

LES MISÉRABLES won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and it took home four Césars (Best Film, Most Promising Actor, Best Editing and the Audience Award) in February. It was also France’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. (It, of course, lost out to PARASITE.)

The film opened today in Hong Kong and it’s well worth going back to the cinema for. It’s also available on Amazon Prime if you’re still stuck inside.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, May 22nd, 8:30 am HK time!

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