Les Misérables Review: A Searing Portrait of the Cyclical Nature of Violence in an Increasingly Divided World

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Les Misérables Review: A Searing Portrait of the Cyclical Nature of Violence in an Increasingly Divided World

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, that snagged the Cannes Jury Prize last year and was France’s entry for Best International Film at the Oscars this year, doesn’t update Victor Hugo’s eponymous novel as much as it reclaims it. Like the 1862 novel, the film is set in the suburbs of Montfermeil in Paris and there’s still strife and humiliation to absorb. Yet 150 years later, if there is something that has changed, it is the language of oppression – now informed by the tensions and power imbalances brewing under the veneer of modern multiculturalism.

The 103-minute long film, efficiently paced and shot with a percipient eye (the cinematography is by Julien Poupard), unfolds over the course of one single day in Les Bosquets, a poor Muslim neighbourhood, home to people of largely African descent. Adapted from Ly’s short of the same name, Les Misérables opens with a breathtaking sequence of an equally breathtaking chapter in France’s memory: It’s mid-July 2018 and the football team has just won the World Cup championship. It’s a moment of nationwide unity that cuts across racial differences and socioeconomic divisions. Grins are plastered on almost every face and the jubilation is shared. In between the celebration that takes over the streets, the camera finds its way to an ecstatic Issa (Issa Perica), a young Muslim boy, who runs around with the national flag in tow. The unbridled euphoria of the moment is merely a ruse, foreshadowing the sinister reality that lurks beneath the layers of emancipation.

“What if voicing your anger is the only way to be heard?” a character asks well into Les Misérables.

Narrated as a slow-burn police procedural that teeters on the brink of explosion, Les Misérables doesn’t waste time in laying out the stakes. For one, it’s Stéphane’s (Damien Bonnard) first day at the precinct. He’s newly-transferred to the anti-crime squad patrolling this volatile neighbourhood. His team is led by the temperamental Chris (Alexis Manneti, also doubling up as the film’s co-writer), consumed by rage and a toxic masculinity that seems emboldened by the power he can leverage with the badge on his uniform. In one frightening scene, he announces “I am the law” right after threatening to falsely implicate a Muslim man as a terrorist and in other, he proceeds to sexually harass a young woman. Rounding up the squad is Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a black, trigger-happy police officer who is only too willing to play along in terrorising civilians, even if they’re children.

The meticulous setup finds its bearings when a lion cub, part of a travelling circus, is stolen and Issa, the meek youngster is implicated for the crime. What ensues is a standard portrait of escalation – seething around its edges in a way that possesses a lived-in quality – of the nonchalance and depravity of police brutalities. Ly is invested in not just the outcome of violence, but also in its origins, which lends the film much of its pulsating clarity.

Narrated as a slow-burn police procedural that teeters on the brink of explosion, Les Misérables doesn’t waste time in laying out the stakes.

As Les Misérables compellingly posits, violence doesn’t just beget violence but also mainstreams aggression as the preferred language, promptly indoctrinated by younger generations. The film’s commentary on the pervasive, lingering stain of social injustice culminates into a suffocating climactic set-piece that is dressed as a confrontation of how easily and insidiously rage becomes a generational inheritance. Les Misérables’ masterful filmmaking (Ly finds an ingenious way to make drone shots as a part of the action in a way that succeeds in making them exciting again) embellishes the narrative’s kinetic jumps, evoking the extent of powerlessness that the marginalised are forced to internalise.

“What if voicing your anger is the only way to be heard?” a character asks well into Les Misérables. Throughout the film’s runtime, and in particular during its gut-punch of an ending shot, Ly not only offers up an answer, but also strikingly locates its significance by dressing up the film as a portrait of a time and a mentality. By the time the closing slate of Les Misérables reiterates the words of Hugo – “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators” – Ly’s point about systemic apathy is long made.

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