Director Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables” is not at all what I expected. In a way, that’s my fault because going into it, I was under the impression it was a sort of modern retelling of Victor Hugo’s original novel of the same name, which it is not. Even besides that, though, once I realized what “Les Miserables” actually was, it took me on an unforgettable and deeply moving ride that felt equal parts dramatic and thrilling.
It tells the story of three Street Crimes Unit officers in Paris as they attempt to resolve conflicts among rival groups in the city. Most of the film plays out with two of the officers, Chris, a.k.a. “Pink Pig” (Alexis Manenti), and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) showing new recruit Stephane, a.k.a. “Pento” (Dammien Bonnard), the ropes. Most of it feels like a very well made police drama, but the dark turn that it takes midway through and the jaw-clenching third act that it builds to are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
So if this “Les Miserables” isn’t regaling the story of Jean Val Jean, Cosette and Marius, what is going on here? And why does this film share its name with the classic work of literature and musical?
Well, answering those questions takes some explaining. I don’t want to go into any specific spoilers, but this movie truly comes alive in its narrative and the way that it’s structured. There are many events that you see unfold in real-time, but, like the SCU protagonists, they often feel slightly confusing because you as the viewer have little context for them. Then when it is revealed what is actually happening, it’s gratifying for us as an audience.
The film is set on the streets of Paris, where Victor Hugo wrote his famous novel, and there are a few allusions to it in dialogue throughout the film, but the largest similarities lie in the themes of the two pieces. When the film concludes, it fades to black and a quote from Hugo comes up that says, “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”
I can’t put the message of “Les Miserables,” both the original novel and this film, into words better. The film does a great job of riding a line between showing the protagonists being vile and abusive in some moments and then making them seem weak and frail in others. We feel their frustration and alienation from the community they think they’re protecting.
That being said, the film does not portray them as heroes, especially not Chris, who is constantly spitting some sort of slur at one person or another. Stephane and Gwada are a bit more sympathetic, but even Gwada becomes a heavily conflicted character as Stephane tries desperately to maintain some sort of moral code.
The disturbing lengths that this film goes to without feeling like “trauma porn” are a testament to how human and well-written the characters in it are. When anything happens to them, you feel immensely for them.
Bonnard was amazing in his role as Stephane, and despite Chris being a disgusting character, Manenti brings him to life in an eerily realistic way. Issa Perica, who plays Issa, is also excellent in his role. Issa plays a fairly large role in the story that I neglected to mention before because I feel like this is a film that is best experienced with as few preconceptions as possible. Every actor in this movie sunk into their characters. There were times where I forgot I was watching actors and not a documentary.
The cinematography of this film is also stunning. The colors and visual layers of these parts of Paris pop with a crisp clean color palette and some clever camera work. The large amount of hand-held camera work does give the more intense moments of “Les Miserables” a strong documentary feeling.
I can’t help but be a little bit annoyed that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” got the snub for the French entry in the International Film category in the Oscars this year. However, “Les Miserables” is a strong contender in and of itself and another reminder that, like fellow International Film nominee Bong Joon Ho said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”