Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables has already garnered plenty of praise on the festival circuit even drawing comparisons to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. While a rising sense of racially charged frustration and anger flow throughout, the comparison inadvertently sets a high bar that the film cannot meet.
Truth be told, Ly’s tale of poverty, race and police abuse of power feels more akin to Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day than anything else. When the reckless self-proclaimed “cowboy” policeman Chris (Alexis Manenti) yells “I am the law!” to key influencers of a poor Parisian community, who span from criminals to men of faith, it feels like a direct call back to Denzel Washington’s “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me” speech in Fuqua’s film.
One of the key differences, however, is that more than just corrupt cops have blood on their hands in Les Misérables. A fact that officer Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), freshly transferred to a new unit, learns on his first day on the job. Teamed up with brash Chris and laidback Gwada (Djibril Zonga), Stéphane’s crash course into the community he has sworn to protect takes a dark turn when a kid named Issa (Issa Perica), who is well-known to police, steals a lion cub from the circus.
Their aggressive apprehension of Issa, and general disrespect for the kids in the community, leads to an unexpected confrontation with an extremely agitated group of youth protesting. This results in Gwada shooting a flashbang in Issa’s face. Making matters worse is that a neighbourhood boy, Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), has captured the whole event on his drone. Desperate to save their own bacon, Chris makes it the trios mission to confiscate the footage at all cost.
This sets in motion a series of events that will push the already fractured community to its breaking point.
Inspired partly by the 2005 Paris riots, Les Misérables pulses with tension. Ly’s camera captures the rich textures of the city, including the poverty within it, with beauty and sadness. One really feels both the seething anger and heartbreaking hopelessness of the inhabitants.
The stench of corruption is so potent in the film that it engulfs even the well-meaning individuals. Much like the quote from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables that ends the film, the characters in the film cultivate the vicious cycle they find themselves in. Even Stéphane, who appears to be the moral compass at first, cannot avoid compromising his values when they are pitted against the brotherhood of the police force.
While Les Misérables highlights the black hole style force in which crime and corruption can devour a community, Ly’s film fails to bring dimension to those individuals stuck in the middle. The audience learns little about the characters outside of the bad choices they make. It is also perplexing that Stéphane and Chris are the focal point of the moral conflict, when Issa and Gwada are far more intriguing characters.
A Muslim officer policing a predominantly Muslim community, is ripe for unpacking on several levels. This is especially true when contrasting his life with that of Issa, a child whose fondness for animals hints to a much softer side than his troublemaker image conveys on the surface. Instead of exploring any of the characters in real depth, the film opts to swim in cliched cinematic waters.
Ly’s “that’s just how life is” creates plenty of drama, but it also robs the film of any real nuance. Which is a shame because Ly is clearly a talented director who deserves our attention. His visual eye and ability to build and sustain tension are exciting to watch. One just wishes that he had further fleshed out his characters.
It is one thing to show the gasoline that ignites the fire, but Les Misérables also needs to make us care for those who ultimately are burned by the flames.