‘Les Misérables’ Review
Being the new student in school can be an emotionally trying experience for some kids. Now, take that pressure and put it in a patrol car for law enforcement in a tough part of town where racial and religious tensions are always on edge. The ‘new kid’ in this case isn’t a kid, but rather an adult cop…and the experience will eclipse ‘trying’ and shift directly to life-altering. “Ever since 2005 …” is a line that reminds us that the Paris riots of that year remain fresh in the minds of locals, and police harassment is applied to most every stop or interrogation. This is an area that has yet to reclaim balance and writer-director Ladj Ly, having grown up in this part of the city, is more qualified than anyone to tell these stories through Les Misérables.
Montfermeil is the Paris suburb where Victor Hugo wrote his classic 1862 novel Les Miserables. Recently divorced Stephane (played by Damian Bonnard) has transferred to the Anti-Crime Squad (ACS) in the area to be closer to his young son. His first day on the new job involves riding on patrol with local officers Chris and Gwada, who are veterans of these streets. Chris (played by Alexis Manenti) is a racist, hardened by the locals who have nicknamed him “Pink Pig.” Chris’s intimidation methods are old school and iron-fisted. Gwada (played by Djibril Zonga) is an African-Muslim who tries to capitalize on his own roots with locals, even though they now consider him a traitor.
Immediately obvious is the fact that Stephane’s ‘by-the-book’ approach doesn’t meld with the forceful posture assumed by Chris and Gwada. “Greaser” is the nickname Chris gives to Stephane, emphasizing that the new cop doesn’t fit on the streets or in the patrol car. As the prime example of how this environment can cause a small situation to escalate quickly due to one wrong word or movement, a young thief named Issa takes a lion cub from a traveling circus as a prank. The next thing we know, the Muslim Brotherhood is involved and threats are flooding every interaction, creating tensions for all. When the cops finally track down Issa, an accident occurs that further escalates the tensions between various street factions and the cops. Things get really ugly when it’s discovered a young boy captured the event with his drone.
Director Ly opens on citywide excitement at the 2018 World Cup with a backdrop of Paris sites such as the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. The script from Ly and co-writers Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti doesn’t allow us to wallow in the happiness for long. Soon, we are on the streets with the cops in Victor Hugo’s (and Ly’s) setting – contemporary only in look, not feel or substance. We are dropped into an environment where each moment is dictated by racial-social-political lines. Foot chases, car chases, and confrontations are de rigeur. Disenchantment cloaks kids and adults alike, and the fear of anarchy never wanes. A bad day for Issa turns into maybe the worst ever first day for Stephane. This is one of the year’s most incredibly tense and gripping films, and one that leaves us exhausted and dumbfounded. It’s a brilliant work.