Ladj Ly’s directorial debut casts a critical eye on modern life in the Paris projects that once inspired Victor Hugo
Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables documents a violent, lawless day in les Bosquets, the housing projects in Montfermeil, the setting of the Victor Hugo novel from which the film draws its title. Ly, who drew upon his experiences growing up in the Paris suburb, depicts his hometown as a place fraught with endlessly brewing tension. Special police forces patrol the streets, keeping an accusing eye on citizens who may or may not have been swept up in sectarian gang violence. Switching between the perspectives of the police, gang members, and innocent bystanders who all share some claim to Les Bosquets, Ly doesn’t seek to provide any easy answers to the generations of social conflict plaguing France. Instead, Les Misérables examines the valid reasons why those without a social voice turn to violence for expression, while acknowledging that violence as part of a cycle of retribution that must be broken at all costs.
Les Misérables opens with the induction of Police transfer Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) to the Street Crimes Unit in Montfermeil, headed by partners Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga). Despite an intimidating presence, Gwada is the good cop of the two — he grew up in Les Bosquets, and strikes up an easy rapport with those they must confront. Chris, however, is a young yet all-too-hardened veteran, quick to make crass judgments and skirt the edges of misconduct in order to do his job. Ruiz, in contrast to his two new partners, has plenty of police experience but is a total fish out of water — he’s only transferred to Montfermeil from likelier more well-off parts of Paris to be closer to his son, whom Ruiz lost in a recent divorce.
Ruiz is caught completely off-guard by Chris and Gwada’s way of patrolling — even more so when a series of conflicts involving a traveling circus’ missing lion and Bosquets kids falling under the influence of Muslim Brotherhood leads to the injury of a local kid (Issa Perica) at the patrolmen’s hands. When Chris notices someone’s drone has captured the assault on tape, Ruiz must follow Chris and Gwada through the dangerous neighborhood to prevent the footage from getting into the wrong hands.
What caught me most off guard about Les Misérables was how writer/director Ly infuses a well-worn trope of “bad cops avoiding capture” with a stunning degree of lived-in documentary-like realism. Ly has spent his life filming the squalid conditions in Les Bosquets, from his days as a youth protestor through the infamous riots of 2005 (sparked by the deaths of two teenagers running from Police) and into his career as a filmmaker, where he won a Cesar for the short that inspired Les Misérables. Those decades of experience fuel Les Misérables’ kinetic cinematography and editing, as even the most innocuous of scenes of street life become rife with the threat of explosive violence. Peace feels elusive here — scenes of immigrant kids playing football are broken with the players gossiping about the violent acts of their home villages. Even the film’s opening scenes of flooded streets celebrating France’s world cup victory feel less like a nation briefly coming together than a cumulative outbreak of mass hysteria. Like many films of 2019, Les Misérables finds its fuel in an endless reserve of social anxiety — and the inciting act of violence that closes the film’s first act feels like a long laid fuse finally being lit.
It’s the resulting two-thirds of Les Misérables, though, that provide much of the film’s challenging questions. Terrorized daily by the SCU Ruiz and his partners belong to, people like victim Issa and the de-facto Mayor tasked with keeping the peace dream of either escaping the Police’s clutches or seizing the opportunity for revenge. People like Gwada, though, join the Police in hope of personally finding a solution to the conflicts facing their hometown — even if it requires indulging torture-happy racists like Chris to do so. Ruiz, wholly new to the conflict, thinks the solutions are easy — that if people just stop the violence and corruption, they can forge lasting, productive social partnerships. But it’s never that easy — and Ly’s roving camera is more than driven to illustrate just how each of his characters fit within an ouroboros of retribution. In fitting with Victor Hugo’s novel, the sun of Les Bosquets shines and sets on the just and unjust — and people either swallow their urges for violence and endure what’s being done to them, or there comes a tipping point that may very well claim their lives in the process.
Ly more than recognizes the shades of gray that exist within the sociopolitical conflicts of his film. However, he often doesn’t recognize that same potential for complexity within his individual characters. I’m not asking to sympathize with someone as truly vile as Chris. Just that Ly’s treatment of supporting characters from the leaders of the traveling Romani circus to the brief appearances of Bosquets citizens who fall sway to potentially extremist forces feel far too cursory than the film deserves. There are so many possible side stories throughout Les Misérables — and the frantic pace that the film moves at often threatens to cast them aside in pursuit of its well-intentioned ambitions.
Despite that aspect of Les Misérables, Ly does manage to directly interrogate a sense of complacency when it comes to documenting social unrest. From Gwada’s itchy trigger finger despite being the “good” cop keeping Chris under control, to the bitter cynicism that pervades throughout everyone in Les Bosquets, it’s clear that there’s little faith in our innate ability to be “good people.” It’s hard to believe in a just world when life is constantly motivated by unjust actions. So not only do facile appeals from Ruiz seem wholly tone-deaf, its completely reasonable that others would turn to incendiary acts of violence to just be heard.
Like Ly’s inspiration La Haine, Les Misérables recognizes the addictive and destructive power violence holds. In a crucial scene, in spite of his naïveté, Ruiz does recognize how the 2005 riots failed those who participated in them. A burnt car or shop hasn’t solved anything. The same social ills continue to plague Les Bosquets and the other banlieues like it. It’s arguable that the parties fighting over the film’s central drone footage won’t solve anything from taking possession of it — they’ll only have an advantage as momentary as the peace that the World Cup victory brought in the film’s opening. A character makes a decision to act that provokes an equal, tense response from the once-peaceful Ruiz — suggesting that even the most peaceful-minded of men can’t help but resort to violence in order to maintain a fragile status quo.
So what does a film like Les Misérables have to offer when it posits nothing but a futile cycle of violence and oppression? I’ve written off quite a few films this year for their confusion of addressing their issues with actively confronting them, which results in further complacency than the call to action they aspire to. But Les Misérables, despite its rough edges and regrettable refusal to further explore individual morality, does offer what’s most deprived of its central characters — a voice. Ly recognizes the validity of his characters’ actions, while placing them in a further context that requires his attentive audience to reckon with the violence depicted in the same way. Ly also recognizes that his film can only do so much to change the world — and its up to his audience to respond accordingly to his call to action.
Les Misérables debuted in theaters January 10th, 2020 courtesy of Amazon Studios.