Les Miserables is a tour de force and it’s hard to believe this is a debut film. Ladj Ly’s film will have you singing to a different tune and in place of music is shared frustration, anger and rage of a minority living in a Parisian suburb neglected by the rich in the city and victimised by some of the police. Les Miserables is a conversation reignited and long overdue.
Les Miserables starts off in glorious technicolour diversity of the World Cup 2018 where all the diverse representations of French nationals are shown draped in the French, Tricolour flag. After all, a country is unified when they have a common goal: football. Sport is the exception, unity doesn’t seem to extend to racism, policing and social matters, then as Les Miserables shows us, it is a question of them vs us.
Montfermeil is a suburb of Paris where officer Ruiz is starting his first day with the anti crime squad made up of squadron leader Chris and Gwada. Chris has a pig collection and revels in the fact that he is hated by all. Gwada is seen as a traitor by the locals as he comes from that area and is now a policeman. Issa we see is a juvenile delinquent, whose father is seen tearing strips off him in the police station after being called down there for his son. It’s the summer holidays. Buzz, another bored teen, is using his drone to spy on the girls in the neighbouring tower blocks. Meanwhile, Issa decides to steal Johnny the lion cub. This act sets the fragile neighbourhood peace alight: the gypsies want their tiger back, the ‘Mayor’ doesn’t know what they are talking about. The police, well Chris decides to exert his authority and track down the teen who stole Johnny, because of course as all teens do they like to show off on Instagram.
Ladj Ly’s direction and tempo are tight throughout. From the outset, the audience is thrown into a technicolour world and the chants and singing of the national anthem is joyful. It then goes quiet as we are shown the other side of Paris, where tourists and those that live in the city never venture to. What the script and direction show us is the familiarity: kids are bored as it is the summer holidays and there is little to do because in the suburbs the city doesn’t seem to care. The misery they experience is not at the hands of each other but at the police. Seeing this film post the events in the USA: George Floyd and others, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, gives it a whole other dimension. This films gets under the skin and shows how the daily harassment and the failure to listen leads to the explosion and riots. The misery that is felt by those is ignored at society’s peril. The obvious comparison for Les Miserables is to La Haine but that does it a disservice. Ladj Ly film is more nuanced: everyone is to blame. The fact that this film is set in the same suburb where Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name started and he ends on a quote from Les Miserables is to give context and pause for thought, no one is bad it is the environment in which they are raised which leads them to do what they do.
The script and central narrative of Les Miserables are both very clear and it’s refreshing that no solutions are offered nor are certain groups all labelled as bad eg the police. What could be better is the character development of certain key individuals like The Mayor and Salah. Lots of elements are hinted at but we never quite understand their motivations. What is keenly felt is how invisible women are in this world. There is very little screen time given to the teenage girls or even the female police chief, and what little is given objectifies or caricatures them. The focus is on the men, the police hostility towards Black men and how they react to this. It makes for a relentless and at times jagged film. It would have benefited to have had a more prominent female character. Having said that, there are so many incredible set pieces starting with the opening and the scene with the lion which left my heart in my throat. What wasn’t necessary was the final fifteen minutes, sometimes less is more.
Les Miserables shows in glorious technicolour the everyday misery endured in the Parisian suburbs. It is a conversation reignited, started by La Haine 25 years ago and left hanging in mid sentence. Hopefully, Les Miserables will allow those voices muffled for too long to be heard loud and clear.
Go and watch it in the cinema, a must see!
LES MISÉRABLES IS RELEASED IN UK & IRISH CINEMAS FROM 4TH SEPTEMBER
Certificate 15 / Running time 102 Minutes