LES MISÉRABLES (2019)
Starring Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Steve Tientcheu, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Almamy Kanoute, Raymond Lopez, Jeanne Balibar, Nizar Ben Fatma, Luciano Lopez, Jaihson Lopez, Sana Joachaim, Lucas Omiri, Rocco Lopez, Zordon Cauret, Steve Cauret, Diego Lopez, Omar Soumare, Abdelkader Hoggui and Djeneba Diallo.
Screenplay by Ladj Ly & Giordano Gederlini & Alexis Manenti.
Directed by Ladj Ly.
Distributed by Amazon Studios. 103 minutes. Rated R.
Screened at the 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival.
It takes a good amount of confidence – and probably more than a bit of impudence – for a first-time feature film director to use the same title as arguably the most famous piece of literature in French history. This was a piece of literature that has been filmed multiple times, turned into an iconic musical and is also the subject of multiple straight theatrical productions.
It’s doubly ambitious because this Les Misérables really has little to do with Victor Hugo’s classic novel, other than sharing some basic thematic similarities about overzealous policemen and the uprising of the Parisian underclass against discrimination. However, while the plots are mostly very different, the basic thrust of the plots are not so dissimilar.
The new film even ends with a quote from Hugo’s novel, which points out the basic overarching similarities of the stories: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”
So, while there are no Jean Valjeans, or Inspector Javerts, or Cosettes in this new Les Misérables, there really is a feel of dragging an older story into a new generation. It can’t exactly be called an update of the plot, but it is a bit of an update of the purpose of Hugo’s novel – a new-millennial look at the tension between the haves and the have-nots of Paris. It even takes place in the same neighborhood. This one just has drones, pop guns, housing developments, drugs, rioting, football, baby lions, smoke grenades and Molotov cocktails.
And bad cultivators.
As far as feel, though the new Les Misérables is more reminiscent of a Parisian version of The Wire. It is a look at the fraying connections between a ghetto neighborhood and the police, who are supposed to watch over the people, but instead use fear to keep the locals in line. It is turning into a tinderbox, with everyone waiting for a possible explosion, like the riots which had happened there just a little over a decade earlier.
Dropped into the maelstrom is Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a smart and empathetic gendarme who has just been transferred from another (less dramatic) arrondissement. He is hooked up to travel with two local policemen, Chris (played by Alexis Manenti, one of the co-writers of the film), a charismatic but in-your-face Alpha cop. His cool black partner Gwada (Djebril Zonga) tries to straddle the line between cop and native of the neighborhood.
After almost no time working with these two (Les Misérables takes place over a period of two days), Stéphane is concerned about his partners’ attitudes towards their charges and the fraying of relationships with the people.
The tensions grow as a budding juvenile delinquent named Issa (Issa Perica) graduates from petty crimes to stealing a baby lion. As the cops try to bring him in, despite locals protesting and Issa running – or perhaps because of it – one of the cops mistakenly (or so he says) shoots him in the face with buckshot. A local kid captures the whole thing on camera with his drone, and the two veteran cops worry more about getting the footage back than saving Issa’s life.
As everyone – locals, cops, criminals, gangs – runs around trying to take advantage of the situation, the fuse continues to burn and the explosion looms.
In a world where divides are turning into chasms, where “Black Lives Matter” faces off against “Blue Lives Matter,” where the separation between the rich and the poor continues to expand, Les Misérables is a warning, as much as anything else. It can be small, somewhat trivial items which set off blazing passions and violence.
Les Misérables is a stunning and disturbing film which knows the pulse of this particular time in history. I really wish I could say it wasn’t.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 20, 2019.