IMDB Link: Les Misérables (2019)
Director: Ladj Ly
Writers: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Stars: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga
Synopsis: A cop from the provinces moves to Paris to join the Anti-Crime Brigade of Montfermeil, discovering an underworld where the tensions between the different groups mark the rhythm.
This film is unfairly judged and dismissed because of the impact it had on awards season in 2019-2020. In a system where for the International Film only one film can be chosen per country, France had numerous films to choose between. Whilst many people – myself included – fell in love with Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and felt it could have received more than just an International Film nomination if it was pushed for more consideration, instead France decided to pick this film, Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables. Because of this comparison, people immediately jumped to the conclusion that either this had to be so much better than Portrait of a Lady on Fire or France made a horrible mistake.
I will simply leave this conversation by saying that I do not think that Les Misérables is the better film, but I do think it is the more important film for the country of France. Whilst the film is called Les Misérables, it does not follow the same narrative as the popular novel by Victor Hugo. There are a few comparisons that can be made connecting the novel to this film, including the location of Montfermeil and the overall mood of the story, but it is a much more modern story that shows the situation that the French currently live in.
If you are not aware of the current situation in France, this film does a good job showcasing the split between the citizens and the police. In the country, there are riots going on and protests for a better justice system and for the government to step up and protect their citizens. For the past few years, France has sadly been a country that for tourists is the destination of love and beauty, yet in the poorer areas it is filled with refugees getting no help from the government, homeless people selling merchandise outside the Eiffer Tower and riots. Ladj Ly does a wonderful job highlighting this aspect of France, and giving it a spotlight.
Damien Bonnard plays a character that is thrown into the middle of this situation, as Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz. He comes into the police force optimistic, and hoping to do good in the community. Yet, the system he has joined in is one that does not handle every situation well, and ends up going against the teenagers who are just in their rebellious stage. The further the film goes along, the more the situation escalates. This is a film that makes the audience question what side they belong on, as the teenagers are breaking the law and acting violent, but not to the limit that the police force punish them for, and their actions need to have consequences.
On a technical standpoint, this film is so well crafted. The cinematography is stunning, and not for the way that most French films are. It could have been so easy to make this look visually pretty and use the vast landscapes of France to enhance the beauty, but that is not the point of this film. Even looking at the still posted for this review, there is a dull nature to the colour but it works so well to set the tone. The editing is sharp, lingering around the scene and making the audience a part of the situation, witnessing every moment as closely as we can.
The build-up is strong with this film, but I do feel like the ending is rushed and inconclusive. The situation escalates, and when you have that the pressure to end the film becomes more necessary. This film did not really feel like it had an ending, as so many loose ends were left untied. It could have certainly done with an extra few scenes just to leave all of the focal characters with some sort of conclusion, as it does leave feeling cold and not fully achieving what it set out to say in terms of a message.
With all of the conversation last year questioning why France didn’t pick Portrait of a Lady on Fire as their film submission for the Oscars, I think it is important to look at why they instead chose Les Misérables as their entry. This is an incredibly strong film from Ladj Ly, and one that is important to the French people of today. It is dark, it is honest, and it is also a technically strong film that deserves to be talked about in its own right. When you get a chance to seek it out, please do so.
Les Misérables releases on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on November 30th.