by Hope Madden
“Remember this, my friends. There is no such thing as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”
Victor Hugo penned those words as he watched the suffering and oppression in the streets of Montfermeil.
Set in July 2018, when the World Cup victory made celebratory compatriots of everyone in France, at first blush, Ladj Ly’s film Les Miserables bears little resemblance to the saga of Jean Valjean and that tenacious Javert. But it doesn’t take long for the filmmaker to use the story of law enforcement and the population of modern day Montfermeil to show that little has changed since Hugo set quill to parchment 150 years ago.
Damien Bonnard (Staying Vertical) plays Stéphane. Ly taps Julien Poupard’s camera to follow Stephane on his first day in Paris as part of a three man unit tasked with keeping an eye on a mainly poor, primarily Muslim district.
Stéphane’s new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), have been on the job long enough to have developed relationships and tensions in the neighborhood. Thanks to an almost absurd subplot involving a traveling circus—whose lion delivers an apt metaphor and a heartbreaking scene—Stephane’s first days on the force will be regrettable.
Ly was inspired to write the film by riots that broke out in his own apartment building and neighborhood in 2005. That authenticity lends the film both a visceral dread as well as a complicated compassion.
Like Hugo, Ly seems unwilling to abandon those in authority to the fate of villain any more than he’s willing to entirely forgive the actions of the oppressed. Rather, each side is implicated (one far more boldly than the other), but it’s the lack of tidy resolution that makes the fate of these characters compelling.
While every performance is impressive, young Issa Perica is the film’s beating heart, its undetermined destiny, and he’s more than up to the task. His lines are limited but his performance is heartbreaking, his character really the only one that matters.
A devastating social commentary masquerading quite convincingly as an intense cop drama, I’d say Les Miserables would do Hugo proud. The truth is, it would probably break his heart.