There are more pleasant first days on the job than the one experienced by Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a Parisian police officer newly transferred to the city’s Street Crime Unit, in director Ladj Ly’s combustible Les Misérables.
He’s barely been introduced to his superiors when he is sent on his first assignment, shadowing and assisting longtime partners Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga). It will be a fraught 24 hours, filled with the search for a lion cub stolen from a circus, the accidental shooting of an unarmed youth, and the quest for a memory card that could transform the image and reputation of the police force overnight. As these events spiral and overlap and domino, Ruiz will witness and, by extension, implicate himself in, all manner of chicanery and corruption and obfuscation, and he may end up dead the next day.
Ruiz is offered as the lone moral center of a decayed culture in which everybody is on edge, and where his fellow law enforcers continually abuse the immunity of their positions. He observes Chris illegally frisking a 15-year-old girl who may have been smoking a joint, and then destroying the smartphone of her friend, who made the mistake of recording the incident. Following the unseen theft — or, if you will, the liberation — of the lion cub, the operators of a traveling circus spew racist and homophobic invectives from their caravan’s loudspeaker, alleging to the strongman “mayor” of a nearby slum that one of his residents stole their feline.
When the thief, an immigrant child named Issa (Issa Perica), is discovered with the cub amid the fog of a minor pubescent revolt, he finds himself on the receiving end of Gwada’s potentially fatal flash-ball weapon. Instead of immediately shuttling the boy to a hospital, Chris’ priority is to track down the drone that captured the entire incident on video, and operated by a lonely voyeur who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Les Misérables, a movie whose bold title brings forth all sorts of deliberate associations, riffs on Victor Hugo’s paean to the underclass while never tethering itself to it. (Some translations of Hugo’s book have renamed it The Victims and The Dispossessed, titles that accurately describe Ly’s movie.) Rather than looking to the past, it’s a smartly 21st-century crime drama, in which officers trawl social media for evidence, and victims are able to hold authority figures accountable thanks to pocket cameras and eyes in the sky.
Which is not to say the playing field has been leveled. Exposing the monstrosity of corrupt authority figures comes with great peril and sacrifice, which brings the atmosphere back to Hugo, and to a harrowing climax in which the long-simmering rage of the occupied class erupts into its inevitable boil. Les Misérables shows us, essentially, how revolutions happen; one person’s self-immolation is another’s theft of a circus animal, but whatever the inciting incident, there will be blood.
Ly’s film is a rejection of the niceties of so much commercial French cinema. As a moral parable fraught with seismic implications — a powerful, if schematic, indictment of the sanctioned injustice that burbles under the surface of the world’s most romantic city — it is flush with the exciting naïveté of a young person’s movie. It is imbued with the earnest hope that by shedding sunlight on institutional rot, Ly might just rouse a populace toward systemic change.
Perhaps this is why he opens the movie on a seemingly unrelated symphony of activism: One black boy, waving a French flag, leaves his home, joins a few friends, who gather with still more peers, and clog a subway car. Their circle continues to expand: They’re soon in front of the Eiffel Tower with thousands more, then hundreds of thousands, singing “La Marseillaise” in unison.
Could this be the positive result of the actions that we’ll see unspool over the next 100 minutes? Or is it so much wishful thinking, a veritable dream sequence? The answer will lie in each viewer’s level of cynicism. I have a feeling that Ly’s film will have legs beyond this awards season, because its themes are, unfortunately, timeless.
This Les Misérables’ universal resonance is best reflected in Upton Sinclair’s assessment of Hugo’s Les Misérables, and it deserves this review’s last word: “So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age — the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night — are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
LES MISÉRABLES. Director: Ladj Ly; Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly; Distributor: Amazon; Rating: R; Now showing at Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray, Living Room Theaters at FAU, Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, Regal South Beach, the Tower Theater in Miami, and Coral Gables Art Cinema. Also streaming on Amazon Prime.