Les Misérables

les_miserablesSTARS3.5I know what you’re thinking.  Another adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel?!  No this is a modern drama based on an incident of police brutality and the subsequent riot that followed.  There is a connection to the 19th-century classic, however.  It’s set in Montfermeil — an eastern suburb of Paris — where some of Victor Hugo‘s 1862 tome takes place.  Director Ladj Ly grew up there and still calls it home.  A neighborhood comprised of poor residents — Africans, Muslims, and Romani people — living in cramped housing projects within a lively community.  This fusion of people coexist within a constant state of unease.

If your idea of Paris is strolling along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, then this should be an eye-opener.  This is not the Paris shown in travel videos — the ads that proudly promote the Eiffel Tower, the Musée du Louvre and Notre-Dame Cathedral.  It’s a rougher section of Paris where young lawbreakers rule the streets, a high-crime area rarely depicted.

Our story is centered around a trio of cops.  A plainclothes officer named Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is recently assigned to a three-man crime unit that patrols the city.  He’s the new guy, trying to play by the rules and the most sympathetic.  Then there’s hothead Chris (Alexis Manenti).  He often oversteps his bounds and takes pleasure in exerting control over people.  For the cynical among us, he’s your typical policeman.  Then there’s Gwada (Djebril Zonga).  He’s lived in this area all his life and shares the experience of the residents he serves.  Despite his background, he’s loyal to the badge which makes him complicit in Chris’s suspect behavior.

Les Miserables‘ point of view is although cops attempt to maintain order, their conduct might actually make things worse.  Curiously the drama is told from their perspective.  Chris is not to be trusted but Ruiz is oddly compassionate.  That makes his portrayal somewhat unique.  Interestingly Gwada is the most intriguing character and yet he’s also the most undeveloped.  I had so many questions.  Who is this man?  How does he feel about his partner Chris?  Why does he allow Chris to behave in this manner?  Sadly, the screenplay doesn’t answer those concerns.  Nonetheless, director Ladj Ly still has an artistic eye.  The presentation of humanity is impressively photographed.  I was drawn into the cinéma vérité style — its gritty realism feels authentic. Regrettably, the chronicle ends on a rather unsatisfying note.  Ambiguity is a creative choice but it can also feel like the filmmaker hasn’t committed to a point.  I would’ve preferred a definitive statement.  Whether positive or negative the result would’ve made the conclusion more powerful.  As it stands, the denouement is anemic.  The account is worth watching.  It’s satisfying enough, but it could’ve been great.


2 Responses to “Les Misérables”

  1. This was quite different than I expected. Such a depressing look at this part of Paris. A lot of negative people here. Story well done though. I liked it.


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