Les Miserables (2019) Review

Year: 2020
Runtime: 102 Minutes
Director: Ladj Ly
Writer: Ladj Ly (screenplay), Giordano Gederlini (screenplay), Alexis Manenti (screenplay)
Stars: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga

With his feature debut, “Les Miserables”, writer/director Ladj Ly creates narrative that’s boiling with tension as it displays the slow rise of rebellion and anarchy in a French city.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, is this another adaptation of the iconic novel by Victor Hugo or the musical – it’s not. Ly’s film is more of a modern take on the rebellious nature of the story and is inspired by 2005 riots that took place in Paris suburbs and across France. It has viewers follow the perspective of Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a new officer that comes from a small province and transfers to a suburb of Paris called Montfermeil. Riding along with Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), two fellow members of the Anti-Crime Brigade, Stephane discovers an underworld where lines are constantly crossing, and tensions are beginning to boil over.

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Les misérables (2019) © SRAB Films – Rectangle Productions – Lyly Films

Right away, Ly introduces viewers to how religion, race, and social status play big parts in not only how people are seen and respected, but also where lines are drawn. While the lowest class, seen here as the younger generation, answer to all those above them, the highest, being Chris and the rest of the police force, answer to no one and you can feel these tiers of power just from how Ly structures seemingly normal conversation.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, is this another adaptation of the iconic novel by Victor Hugo or the musical – it’s not. Ly’s film is more of a modern take on the rebellious nature of the story and is inspired by 2005 riots that took place in Paris suburbs and across France.

From The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) talking to his subordinate about a local market owner not respecting him to everyone going to Salah (Almamy Kanoute), a former local gang leader, not just for information, but also for safety when things go wrong. Nothing compares, though, to the power, albeit dwindling, that’s displayed by Chris and Gwada as they are constantly shown to abuse their power and twist the law in their favor to maintain their dominance. They use things like their masculine physicality and aggressive behavior to instill fear into those around them, especially younger kids, and it’s one of the things that Stephane picks up on very quickly.

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Les misérables (2019) © SRAB Films – Rectangle Productions – Lyly Films

Stephane is actually one of my favorite aspects about “Les Miserables” as he acts a perfectly relatable guide through an underworld he’s recognizing for the first time in his life. Bonnard is excellent in showing the sense of justice and genuine heart that Stephane has and I like how Ly displays this in both how he reacts to Chris’ aggressive behavior and visually with him always putting his “police” band on when he gets out of the car.

He’s someone that prefers to be respected rather than feared and it’s something that makes him one of the easiest people in the film to relate to as he always tries to find between his Chris and Gwada as well as Salam, The Mayor, and other citizens. He’s never about picking sides, as he knows that if he does the fallout is going to be to great to bear, but rather keeping the peace to the best of his ability and trying to what’s right. Bonnard delivers this in full with every scene he’s in and does it in a way that’s very genuine and realistic.

The entire last sequence really does leave you on the edge of your seat as Ly creates a viscerally real look at what could happen when hate is instigated. The final image is actually perfect in displaying Ly’s intentions of holding a mirror up to ourselves.

However, as much peace keeping as he does, he can’t even stop the thrilling finale that’s effective in showing the message that Ly displays by the end. Throughout the film, there’s this tension that’s slowly getting ready to boil over and just as it does, you’re constantly left wondering who’s going to enact change and how they are going to do it. When things finally take a turn, you’re essentially on the ride of your life as you watch the rise of rebellion.

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Les misérables (2019) © SRAB Films – Rectangle Productions – Lyly Films

The entire last sequence really does leave you on the edge of your seat as Ly creates a viscerally real look at what could happen when hate is instigated. The final image is actually perfect in displaying Ly’s intentions of holding a mirror up to ourselves to show not what’s certain, but hauntingly possible if things aren’t corrected and stopped – it’s just a shame that this reflection looks all too familiar.

The only major problem with Ly’s depiction of corruption in power and the rebellion that starts because of it is that there’s nothing new to it. It’s not super deep in exploring things like racism, corruption, and anger and it’s not all that original – especially compared to American cinema. The final sequence is still very effective in making you think about everything that’s unfolded throughout the film, but most of it just feels like surface-level exploration of society and it just seemed like a missed opportunity to make viewers think about something more.

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Les misérables (2019) © SRAB Films – Rectangle Productions – Lyly Films

Ly’s modern take of “Les Miserables” is really engrossing in the world it builds and effective in displaying a possible outcome of the world that hate could instigate. After seeing it, I can understand why France chose the film to represent the country for this year’s Oscar race for Best International Feature film as it excellently depicts the modern social in an immensely thrilling fashion and is a worthy nominee – even though I still feel that Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a more fitting choice as it reaches for a bolder and deeper meaning that “Les Miserables” doesn’t ever grasp.

4 stars

 

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