Les Misérables: A Gripping but Unfocused Tale of Dispossessed Youth
On October 27, 2005, police in Clichy-sous-Bois, a majority African-French suburb outside of Paris, investigated a suspected break-in. Because of rising adolescent unemployment and persistent police harassment, a nearby group of local youths fled the area, several of them taking shelter in a nearby electricity substation. Two of them died in an accident while hiding: Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré. The tragedy led to nearly a month of rioting in Paris and throughout France, with more than 2,500 arrests. Set in Montfermeil, the Parisian suburb where Victor Hugo set part of his historic 1862 novel of the same name, Les Misérables adapts a select few of Hugo’s themes, set to events inspired by the 2005 riots. It’s a clever head-fake, one that works when it’s focused on the genuine connection between the two: the poor ones, the dispossessed, les mis. An urgent tale of a community full of mistrust and burdened by poverty, Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables has a sprawling ambition that holds it back, but packs a zeitgeist-flavored kick when it focuses on the people left behind. France’s submission to the Academy Awards and its first from a black filmmaker, the movie tells the story of a neighborhood nearly bursting with tension. The cops harass and bully, often for no reason other than that they can; the “Mayor” takes charge of the area’s disinherited youth, both offering shelter and extracting value from them; and a local Muslim leader and restaurant owner with ties to all of them. Ly walks a perfect line in Les Mis, casting these relationships as hostilely symbiotic: they despise the fact that they must rely on each other. In the preface to his original Les Mis, Hugo wrote that “so long as there shall exist…a social condemnation, which…artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality…books like this cannot be useless.” Though it’s not the Hugo quote that Ly nods to in the film’s closing moments, it’s certainly the one that justifies his movie’s existence. And when Ly focuses on that divine destiny complicated with human fatality, his movie feels necessary. The film excels in its opening five and closing 25 minutes, a swirl of bodies, restlessly choreographed, first in elation and later in despair. Les Mis welcomes us to the world of Montfermeil in an extended tracking shot during the celebrations of the French victory in the 2018 World Cup. Ly’s camera fluidly travels between the young celebrators, a body itself amidst the pulsing crowd, lit with the hope that victory has brought. In its closing, the spacious optimism has been replaced with a claustrophobic fatalism, tension slowly but unceasingly ratcheted up until the pot boils over. In the space between, though, Ly makes a curious decision to anchor his narrative with three police officers – paying special attention to the new-to-the-force Stéphane, an audience cypher meant to help introduce us to the neighborhood. Rooting the swirling tensions in the perspective of the police rarely comes off as sympathy, but it does continuously offer a more nuanced portrait of the police. On the other hand, that decision necessarily gives less screen-time and little internal life to the struggling youths, the devout Muslims, or the embattled Mayor. Les Mis thrives when Ly’s camera feels like a fly on the wall, buzzing through the city – but the fly spends too much time on Stéphane’s shoulder. That is to say, it’s as if an episode of NYPD Blue were inspired by Do the Right Thing. Technically, Ly’s full-length debut astounds. Where the plot feels meandering at times, the camerawork is tight. Ly builds in a narrative excuse to use drone shoots, juxtaposing the freedom and beauty with the walls-closing-in sensation of his street-level footage. Julien Poupard shot the film vibrantly. And the performances are convincing, particularly Djibril Zonga as Zwada, the one police officer who defies stereotype as he battles feelings of remorse. Though it drifts from its focus and at times undermines itself, Les Misérables is a strong first effort from a clearly assured filmmaker. I look forward to what he has in store.