Film review. Les Miserables (2020). Up close, personal and riotous.
The connection of the film’s title is not thankfully to the musical but to the novel by Victor Hugo. Where Hugo set his story is still home to social strife in the Parisian banlieue of Montfermeil were this film anchors its story. This is not a kitchen sink look at the projects or one of continuous misery. The drone footage shots from high above lends the area a real beauty.
But look closer at ground level you see another side that is up close, personal, and riotous. Director Ladj Ly grew up in the area, knows it, warts, and all. He is not a poverty tourist. His film differs from La Haine (1995) in that Les Miserable wants to show you not just the hardship, poor living conditions but some of the beauty of the place, the work of residents proud of where they live. We see them first in a riot of joy celebrating France’s World Cup final win in 2018. If France can sometimes appear divided its national football team can bring it together, if only for a moment in time.
Then we have our introductions to the characters drawn on to the films canvas. The three police squad members each have their own angle. One is a newcomer just up from the country Damien Bonnard as Brigadier Stephane Ruiz. The other, police officer Chris, nickname Pink Pig, played brilliantly by Alexis Maneti who’s on the job behaviour makes it is hard to differentiate him from a criminal. He is from a tradition of police officers like Terence McDonagh played by Nicola Cage in Bad Lieutenant, Port of Orleans (2009). Police officers who have long given up on policing who in this film see Montfermeil not as an area they police but turf to control. This is a police force who act like an occupying force. This is best played out in a scene that is less of a riot but more a type of urban warfare with each landing within a flat complex fought and defended like sovereign territory. The build-up to this event forms the core of the film, a long fuse takes light, the film then following the fuse right up to its explosion. In that it shares common cause with La Haine.
The characters even minor ones are memorable, the mayor who may well be an elected mayor, a community leader, or a gangster. All we get, is that he has some influence, knows what is going on, is satisfied with the status quo, and is unaware or does not care about the growing anger from the young towards the police.
Every adult character in the film from the mayor, the police who stand for the French state, Muslim community leaders are representative of an establishment that has failed. Take the Muslim characters they unlike the police meaningfully engage with the kids offering them religion they believe will give order to their chaotic lives, the kids listen but respectfully move on. The most interesting interactions are when the kids go up against Chris (Pink Pig) who is everything the young kids hate about the police. He is less about policing and more about control. Stop and search being his weapon of choice. Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz nickname Pento is the conscience of the three police officers. Through his eyes we can see the film as a riff on Training Day (2001) he sums up Pink Pigs approach who reprimands him “You just arrived and you’re lecturing us? We are the only ones respected” to which Pento replies “Respect? People around here just fear you.” In the middle of this trio is police officer the Franco-African Gwada, a police officer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He is the hammer that meets the nail that sets off trouble in the banlieues. This happens, during a confrontation with a young immigrant youth Issa who is a victim turned warrior. It is Gwada not Pink Pig who carries out the act of violence against Issa. An accident? A fit of rage? A result of his nervous state? The director has not gone down the obvious route by awarding Pink Pig the violent act against the kid.
In Issa we can see the director who grew up in the banlieue carrying a camera to document life as it was lived. His film is the culmination of a life’s work. When Issa mounts his camera on a drone, he is the director. The drone scene not only provide the cue for the films action when Issa films police brutality just as the director did when he lives on the banlieue. Amongst all this we get a lion who has escaped and wanders the urban wilderness of the banlieue. Les Misérables draws on other films but its originality comes from a director who has brought to screen a part of his life. In doing so he has brought authenticity, entertainment and social critique to produce a memorable film.