Don’t watch Les Misérables expecting to sing along to “I Dreamed a Dream.” First, this film isn’t your mom’s Les Mis. Second, it isn’t Tom Hooper’s Les Mis. Heck, it’s not even Victor Hugo’s Les Mis. But it certainly speaks of broken dreams and lost hopes like those poor Fantine mourned. Les Misérables introduces the singular vision of newcomer Ladj Ly incendiary power. It’s an exhilarating discovery and a bold introduction of a new voice. Les Misérables gets my vote as the best first feature of the past year.
Les Misérables comes to theatres as a newly minted Oscar nominee for Best International Feature. Readers might not want to wager against Parasite, but this film could have won any other year. Ly’s film is a stunning, energetic, and eye-opening essay on systemic racism, social inequality, multicultural tensions, and police brutality. Les Misérables is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing meets Abdellatif Kechiche’s L’esquive for the audience of today. For one, it’s an exhilarating feat of in-your-face cinema that’s very of the moment. But this provocative slice of social commentary will stand for years to come.
The popular Les Misérables musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg has “I Dreamed a Dream” and other anthems, yet Ly’s film only has one song. It’s the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” which appears in the opening scene. It sounds as defiant as “Fight the Power” in Do the Right Thing. Les Misérables begins with an image worthy of Victor Hugo or Spike Lee as Ly depicts an enormous and culturally diverse crowd of Parisians congregating around the Arc de Triomphe. They celebrate France’s soccer victory and unite singing “La Marseillaise” with full-blooded conviction. Although words of the song resonate deep from their bellies, there’s an air of unease amidst the celebrations. This crowd could easily transform into a mob.
And transform it does. Ly thrusts the audience into a fateful day in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil. The area is where Victor Hugo penned the 1862 novel that gives the film its name. Montfermeil is also a Parisian banlieue. It’s a poor suburb, what one might call a housing project, which is mostly populated by immigrant families. Additionally, it is literally and figuratively a community on the margins.
We see this perspective of Montfermeil through the eyes of Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard). Ruiz is a new recruit in the district’s anti-crime brigade. It’s his first day on the job and he rides alongside two veterans who know the ’hood. His immediate superior is Chris (Alexis Manenti), known to kids in the area as the Pig for his stubby nose, pink flesh, and hoggish demeanour. Chris’s partner, Gwada (Djebril Zonga), hails from the district. But Gwada is no less ruthless than his hotheaded and short-tempered partner is. Ruiz’s mentors command authority in their own ways and it isn’t pretty.
Over the course of a single day, Ruiz encounters a rude awakening. The trio, performed with uniformly riveting magnetism by the three actors, tour the area and observe the community. There are racial slurs and stereotypes that might make even Paul Haggis cringe. Despite this, Ruiz sadly finds himself in that world. As a cop, he’s not part of the solution; he’s part of the problem. The film sees the officers’ power spiral out of control as hotheaded machismo and braggadocio impede their abilities to protect the community.
This challenge becomes apparent when members of the local circus approach the officers with a task. They accuse someone in the neighbourhood of stealing their lion cub. They promise bloodshed if the young pet is not returned. The officers try to ease the escalating tension and beg the cooperation of the local “mayor”—so dubbed by the moniker on his soccer jersey. However, the residents simply prefer to let street justice take its course.
Tensions mount. The situation erupts as the youths of Montfermeil are caught in the crosshairs. A split-second decision puts the cops at odds with the kids. Moreover, the impact of social media and technology invite a higher power into the equation—that of digital democracy. The officers discover that actions have consequences. Their mission becomes not about finding the lion, but about erasing proof of that they abuse the power with which they’re entrusted.
Ly keeps the camera in the thick of the action as these events unfold at breakneck speed. Kinetic camerawork by Julien Poupard keeps a viewer constantly on his or her toes. Adrenaline kicks in from the very first frame of Les Misérables. Ly makes the audience an active member of the escalating situation through the ever-moving camera. The urgency is immediate and one truly feels caught in the crosshairs of a conflict with no solution in sight.
Inspired by the Paris riots of 2005, in which young people took to the streets and burned cars to protest the deaths of two boys that followed an altercation with police, Les Misérables harnesses the revolutionary spirit of Victor Hugo’s novel and France’s youth movements. Be it 1862, 1968, 2005, or 2019, the spark of Les Misérables evokes a spirit of protest that befits its setting. Nineteen years after youths rioted and cars burned, immigrant communities remain further marginalized amidst growing tides of right wing populism, nationalism, and xenophobia. Ly’s film pulses with simmering anger and it defiantly pushes back against the status quo.
While thrillingly told and masterfully executed as a social parable, Les Misérables, like Parasite, looks at a world at a crossroads. The obvious social inequality leads to a breaking point, an inevitable explosion of violence that only leaves victims. Ly’s film doesn’t have an answer, nor does it have villains. It simply has a broken system desperately in need of repair. One leaves the film stunned, breathless, and shaken. The impact comes not simply by the reality of its tale, but also by its gravity.
Les Misérables opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Jan. 17.