Film Review: ‘Les Misérables’ Is A Potent Police Thriller
First things first. Les Misérables is not an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel. At least, not in the traditional sense. There’s no Jean Valjean and definitely no Cosette. Rather, Ladj Ly’s extraordinary directorial debut is a gritty police thriller set in a largely African neighborhood in Paris. They do, however, share common themes of social injustice and abuse of power. The point being that France — and the rest of the world — hasn’t really progressed in 150 years. The underlying issues are still there and the resulting tension is more explosive than ever.
The film, which was awarded the prestigious Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, is based on a short Ly made in 2017 called The Pitiful. He was inspired by a firsthand encounter with police brutality. After emigrating from Mali, the budding auteur cut his chops filming everyday life in his own neighborhood. Ly eventually caught what he describes as a “police blunder” on tape and went viral with the footage. That scenario is the starting point for both The Pitiful and Les Misérables.
In the latter, our protagonists are cops assigned to the SCU — a special sub-unit assigned to fight crime in France’s North African (and predominantly muslim) community. The SCU is headed by a crooked cop, who is dubbed Pink Pig by locals. Played with suitable menace by Alexis Manenti, the character’s complete disregard for procedure is chillingly believable. His partner (an impressive Djibril Zonga) displays more finesse in carrying out his duties, but usually follows the lead of his superior.
The group dynamic changes when Pento is assigned to the team. In Damien Bonnard’s capable hands, the newcomer is a cop with a conscience. One who has blue blood running through his veins, but still has something akin to a moral compass. The trio spends their first day breaking up minor squabbles, harassing teenagers for smoking weed and leaning on vendors for favors. It all starts to go horribly wrong, however, when a local kid steals a lion cub from a circus and the owner threatens to spray the streets with bullets.
What initially begins as a routine mission to find the culprit ends in a shocking act of violence. The officers’ day goes from bad to career-ending when they realize that everything has been filmed by the local Peeping Tom. Instead of reporting what initially seems to be an accident, Pink Pig decides to get the memory card back by any means necessary. And then, just when you think tensions have settled, a further act of degradation triggers a response that results in one of the most thrilling, white-knuckle endings of the year.
Les Misérables would not work without the insider knowledge of Ly. He takes a fly-on-the-wall approach — think David Ayer’s End Of Watch — that puts you in the back of the cops’ grey Peugeot and into the crumbling apartments of the local residents. In doing so, he has crafted a film that works not only as social commentary, but also as an immaculately constructed police thriller. Les Misérables roughly translates as The Wretched. In Hugo’s novel, the title refers to the poor and disenfranchised. In Ly’s film, however, I can’t help but think he’s referring to the oppressors.
After a limited run to qualify for the Oscars (it has been selected to represent France), Amazon Studios will release Les Misérables on January 10.