Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Les Miserables (2019) dir. Ladj Ly

Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre


Les Miserables, despite its rough subject matter, is somehow a soothing film. The score is delicate throughout the few peaceful moments, and the cinematography by Julien Poupard is sublime. Directed by Ladj Ly, this film (in French, with subtitles) succeeds in forcing the audience to really think about police riots and people, on both sides of the tear gas.

Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is the new recruit in the SCU’s anti-crime brigade, having just moved to Montfermeil, France to be in better touch with his son. His teammate Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and squad leader “Pink Pig” Chris (Alexis Manenti) begin to show him the ropes by stopping and frisking girls at a bus station. When a lion cub is stolen from a circus, Stephane learns of the deep tensions running between the brigade and the people.

The setting, Montfermeil, situates us in a neighborhood where the children run rampant and ex-felons are on every corner, blackmailed by the brigade. It’s obviously a poor area, and the three police officers are conspicuously out of place. The different groups of people who make up the district are all given scenes towards the beginning to explain their presence; for example, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who ostensibly cleaned up the neighborhood, are shown in the beginning trying to convince a group of young Black boys to convert.

Bonnard plays Stephane as a man who knows the rules of his job, but is still willing to follow superiors– at least, until they prove themselves to be in the wrong. As a newcomer to the group, his perspective provides awareness about the ethics of what Chris and Gwada regularly participate in. Alexis Manenti is also an actor to watch. He is able to switch from slow to explosive anger in seconds and it does wonders for Chris’ character, who jumps off the screen. Zonga, is at first, the quiet driver who occasionally offers up an insulting nickname. However, he gets his moment, and what a moment it is. Zonga offers a human look at the results of the mistakes officers make. Issa Perica, who plays a boy from the district also named Issa, has a standout performance. Issa shows the cops, and the district, what happens when you don’t listen to children who feel they deserve to have their voices heard.

Poupard’s cinematography, which also imitates shots from a drone camera, is phenomenal. The film focuses on the residents of Montfermeil in a way that makes it clear that these immigrants are the new France. The city and its people are, however, shown in all its terrible glory. and the score helps to remind us of the endless whims of humanity and the beauty in the horizon.

The plot of this film, especially when explained out loud, sounds silly. In one sense, it’s about lion cub theft in a busy city. In another sense, however, it’s about police riots and immigrants and diversity. Inspired by 2005 Paris riots, it’s a fictional day-in-the-life of a district beset by turmoil.

Les Miserables
dir. Ladj Ly
102 min.

Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema

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