Cinema Review: Les Misérables | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, April 4th, 2020  

Les Misérables

Studio: Amazon Studios
Directed by Ladj Ly

Jan 07, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Tensions rise between the police and civilians of Paris as director Ladj Ly tries to grapple with the underlying problems facing a divided city.

We open on a united France during the football World Cup of 2018. Tricolors flying, rapturous celebrations as France triumph to victory. There is an infectious buzz around the city of Paris that shows an undeniable togetherness. The camera swoops around the streets as bets are placed, horns are honked and impassioned cheers are roared. Then, as the title appears in front of the Arc de Triomphe, the elation fades.

Police officer Corporal Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) has joined the street crime unit in Montfermeil. On his first day, he’s out on duty with Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and aggressive “cowboy” Chris (Alexis Manenti), learning the day-to-day of life policing these unfamiliar streets. Things start out relatively routinely: patrolling, talking with members of the community, mostly mundanities. But as the day progresses Ruiz starts to see increasingly unprofessional and worrying behavior from new partner Chris. The unnecessary searching of teenage girls at a bus stop, searching homes without warrants, threatening language and a general display of abuse of power, all red flags.

The film then tips towards a descent when a lion cub belonging to circus travelers is stolen. The theft provokes a violent reaction from the travelers who shout homophobic and racist abuse, threatening to eat the elders of whoever the perpetrator may be. When unofficial “Mayor” to locals is roped into finding the lion amongst the residents of people he informally presides over, we see a clash of interests begin to take place. The police want to maintain peace and preserve their control, locals want the police off their back and the travelers want their unknowingly vulnerable cub back.

As the police and “The Mayor” work together to track down the cubnapper we begin to see the police’s grip on the situation loosen. After a particularly hairy moment goes awry for our fractious team of cops, their already scrutinous position is put into even graver jeopardy when a drone captures some rather unsavory police-work. Here is where the crux of Les Misérables finds itself in a true precarity.

Ladj Ly wants to start asking real questions at this point. He knows that we cannot police this way when working in a melting pot of Paris’ most demonized and disadvantaged. The age-old questions of trust between police and communities, how to achieve respect instead of fear, and how to balance law and order when people have their own ideas of what constitutes law and what best brings about order. As violence grows and as characters self-reflect, we never truly get a sense of anything but lost hope.

The final act of the film may be seen by some as an admittance of not knowing what to do. An acceptance that people are fallible and that peace is difficult, if not impossible to achieve. That is all good and well, but when a film is tackling modern issues of poisonous race relations, police brutality, and community divide, it must commit to pointing fingers more directly.

The film’s anti-hero police are clearly framed as guilty at times, but it also falls short of holding them to account. Though Les Misérables has political energy to it, it struggles to feel as angry and it deserves to be, shying away from the anti-authority of Victor Hugo and saying “vive le résistance!”    


Author rating: 5/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10


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