“Les Miserables” opens with a Muslim boy leaving his apartment building, the flag of France draped around his shoulders like a superhero’s cape. He and his friends join the throngs of people filling the streets of Paris cheering on France’s team as they compete in and win the 2018 World Cup final. Old and young, rich and poor, black and white — seeing the fans celebrate in the streets (taken from real documentary footage) is an exhilarating show of national unity and fraternity.
But eventually, the euphoria dies down, and a divided country returns to its corners. Ladj Ly’s explosive debut film is a lacerating look at a country at war with itself, with France’s immigrant poor invariably at the losing end.
Ly may have named his film after one of France’s greatest works of literature as a deliberate provocation, because his “Les Miserables” is not a remake or adaptation, but more of a thematic cousin. It is set in the outlying Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, also the setting for Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel about class strife.
Ly also grew up in this neighborhood, and 150 years later, things seem to be worse. Immigrant families are packed into decaying high-rises, where gangs take a cut out of every aspect of life. It’s a bitter irony that the leader of the gang who controls the turf is nicknamed the Mayor, because aside from law enforcement, the city’s actual government seems to have abandoned this place.
“Les Miserables” is a day in the life of three cops — a cynical, corrupt veteran named Chris (Alexis Manenti), his loyal sidekick Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and newbie Stephane (Damien Bonnard), recently transferred from another precinct. There are shades of Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in “Training Day” as Chris gives Stephane a crash course in the rough-and-tumble, morally gray world of urban policing. The viewer identifies with Stephane’s bewilderment, turning to disgust, as we watch Chris harass teenage girls, buy black market contraband, and otherwise wield his power over a frightened, resentful community.
On this fateful day, the cops try to intercede when the Romany owners of the local circus accuse one of the Muslim boys, Issa (Issa Perica), of stealing a lion cub. Tempers flare, the cops’ interventions only cause matters to escalate, culminating in a shocking act of violence perpetrated by one of the cops against Issa. The crime is filmed by a drone piloted by another boy, and soon the cops are tearing the projects apart to find the incriminating footage.
I get why Ly wanted to give “Les Miserables” an urban thriller’s momentum and urgency by focusing on the cops, but they are the least interesting part of the movie, because they have the least interesting perspective. The struggle between good cop Stephane and bad cop Chris is something we’ve seen done better in a dozen other movies. Plus, the police are ultimately outsiders in this community, so their perspective is, by definition, limited and skewered. It’s as if, to use Ly’s own literary allusion against him, Hugo’s “Les Miserables” were told entirely from the point of view of Inspector Javert.
Far more compelling are Issa and the other Muslim boys, who run wild throughout the projects. Ly’s camera dives into the squalid conditions in the apartments, but also soars high (via that drone footage) for a panoramic god’s-eye-view of the landscape. It may be a nightmare, but it’s home for these children. Ly finds moments of beauty and joy for them amid the squalor.
I would have liked to have seen more of this world that Ly knows so intimately, and presents with such authority and empathy. Whatever its narrative flaws, “Les Miserables” will hopefully be the start of a long filmmaking career for Ly to tell those stories.