Ladj Ly’s feature debut mines neorealism to solid effect, but its contrivances prevent it from making a fully-realized social comment.
In one of its several bird’s-eye shots, Les Misérables shows a city that appears to have been made from construction paper. The buildings form a sharp tableau of bolds and pastels, the ground more sepia than dusty. Put together, this modern dystopia looks disarmingly fragile. And to think of everything going on there: the law enforcement roving without much purpose, all the kids playing in the streets, and all the vendors trying to make a living. Rather, it’s the watchers who stand the tallest.
One such onlooker is Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), a little kid in the projects who uses a drone to peep on neighbors and scope out his surroundings. He isn’t the central character here, though—far from it. He’s a theme who eventually turns into a plot device in Ladj Ly’s debut feature—a personification of its thesis, which comes in the first few minutes. “We’re not together,” a police commissioner (Jeanne Baliber) insists. “We’re alone.” But while it may seem excessive at first, this disparity shows itself as the core of Les Misérables. It just isn’t always intentional.
Meet Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a newly divorced officer who’s relocated from Paris to Montfermeil to be closer to his young son. Now he’s working for the Anti-Crime Brigade with two co-workers. First is a casually racist joker named Chris (Alexis Manenti) while second is the slightly more sensible Gwada (Djibril Zonga), and in the first of several MacGuffins, they’re on the search for a lion cub who’s been stolen from a circus owner. Their first suspect? A drug lord known as The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), who seems genuinely innocent.
But despite seeming to be the case, this isn’t the central premise. Ly is content toying with audiences by putting beats and plot points suspiciously early on. It works for a while, too, as narratively driven scenes make way for more innocuously written ones. Civilians go about their day. Teenagers wait for the bus while kids slide through the streets. Meanwhile, the officers appear to lack any real culture of their own, registering as ghosts in a place teeming with life.
Lots—if not all—of the film’s later set pieces stem as reactions to some sort of injustice. There’s Islamophobia and casual misogyny, invasions against the inert. This all works quite well at first, with Julien Poupard’s cinematography allowing a sense of movement in spite of his visual homogeneity. The issue is how Ly, Manenti, and Giordano Gederlini’s script stitches action to reaction. That lion cub, that drug lord, that askew collectivism—it all starts playing as too mechanical halfway through.
Part of it appears as if Ly and company felt they could only get so far in their blend of neorealism and classical storytelling. The dialogue is natural enough aside from expository binges via Chris and Gwada, and although the parallels and references to Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name are cloying, there’s enough shoe leather to bind them together. Then come more MacGuffins and plot points, some of which come in the form of supporting characters. It aims for a firecracker finale but simply doesn’t work.
Les Misérables plays as part standard cop drama, part social comment, and part La Haine revision, but alas, it’s mostly in that order.
Rather, the sociocultural commentary crystalizes as a grand swing as opposed to a refined statement. Earlier allusions to American hegemony and its conflations with brutality don’t go too far while peripheral characters, at first each a part of a city, act as narrative devices. The rotating game of cops and robbers that unfolds is salient in theory. But just who are the cops and who are the robbers, and to what extent is a community is a form of mob mentality unto itself?
It turns out that Ly doesn’t have much of a viewpoint, and while its basis on the 2005 French riots and their aftermath is clear, his movie is too narratively disparate. Les Misérables plays as part standard cop drama, part social comment, and part La Haine revision, but alas, it’s mostly in that order. At least it isn’t didactic.
Les Misérables is currently bashing its way through cinemas in limited release and expands this Friday.