Jacob Richardson | 26/08/2020
A burning treatise on cyclical poverty, racism and police overreach in the streets of Paris.
Winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, Les Miserables tracks Brigadier Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), who moves from provincial France to Paris, joining the Anti-Crime Brigade of Montfermeil. The city is the famous setting for Victor Hugo’s seminal work, and little has changed in the way of justice since then; the poor stay poor or get poorer, while those in power abuse it incessantly. Tensions between black, gypsy and cop cohorts run rife, and are inflamed when a young black boy steals a lion cub from the gypsy circus tent. Assigned to work with veteran police Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), Ruiz finds that things go horribly and violently wrong very quickly, and all three must now work together to try and stop the different factions of Montfermeil from bubbling up in riots and violence.
Directed by Ladj Ly, Les Miserables is a film one could be forgiven for going into with set expectations. After all, the title is so synonymous with characters we know so well, and the big budget musical spectacle of it all, that you may not be expecting a nuanced French drama about police brutality, power in poverty and race riots. Put your unfounded expectations aside, however, and you’ll be greeted by this powerful and engaging film that stays with you long after the credits roll.
Shot in a Greengrass-esque style by cinematographer (Julien Poupard, who recently also did Damien Chazelle’s The Eddy), Les Miserables is viewed through a constantly moving lens. Whether it is rotating around a group conflict, or capturing soundless vision from a homemade drone high above a shooting, the camera draws tension out of every scene. This builds and builds throughout the film until the dramatic and violent climax, and gives the audience a surrogate feeling for the terse undercurrent of resentment running through this community.
The acting across the board is strong, but in particular Damien Bonnard is fantastic - giving a complicated character all the complexity required. Torn between doing what is right, and helping people he works with, Ruiz is a sympathetic character who is simultaneously caught up in things he doesn’t want to be, and the perpetrator of more state-sanctioned evil in this community. In this vein, Bonnard infuses Ruiz with both an inner strength and a deep-seated resentment, and it gives Ruiz an incredibly layered personality.
There are some intriguing choices made by Ladj Ly in this piece, and some of them to the detriment of its staying power. In particular, the fade-to-black cliffhanger ending is a tough one to reconcile, as it deprives the audience of a certain sense of satisfaction. That being said, this is an incredibly strong and powerful film, while also being an entertaining and thrilling ride from start to finish.
Les Miserables is a gripping piece of French cinema, that burns with repressed rage boiling over into violence.