Published on June 3rd, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Les Misérables Is 2020’s Most Important Film
In lieu of the protests going on across America, we’re highlighting the most powerful film of the year. Ladj Ly’s film is honest and urgent.
As the three cops who make up Les Miserables’ central framing device cruise through Montfermeil (a rough Parisian ghetto) one of them remarks on a school that is named after Victor Hugo. He pompously quizzes Stephane, the new guy on the squad, about the reason it was named after the famous author. He replies quickly that this neighborhood is where Hugo took inspiration for and eventually wrote his most famous novel—the title of which the film cleverly apes. A half-beat sort of lingers before he continues: “I can see not much has changed.”
Ladj Ly’s feature-length directorial debut invokes the fundamental angst that drove that classic novel without adopting much of its plot elements. It’s more interested in adapting the sweeping, emotional, and symbolic reach of Hugo’s novel. The result is not only clever, but also timely, as it allows Ly to signify a strong dimension of France’s quintessence—the entanglement of law enforcement with race and class division. The opening montage follows a group of inner city kids to a massive, patriotic rally for (presumably) the country’s football team—the same kids who are often victimized by the very country that they celebrate. Ly frames these hyper-crowded streets of Paris with a kind of painterly consideration. His thesis statement is laid out in a big, bold gesture–that he is making a film about France, about liberty itself, about the very paradoxical manifestations of that liberty which France and many Western countries lay claim to.
Les Miserables is a remarkable undertaking for a relatively young and inexperienced director. The film’s scope is tricky to nail from all vantage points. Yet, his ambition is matched with stellar execution; the film is calculated and patient with the way it develops its many perspectives within this intense setting. It isn’t completely devoid of contrivances, but thankfully even those moments are carefully and passionately curated. They still serve its quasi-adaptational spirit quite well. The film plays moments that may seem a touch unrealistic deadly straight, to the point where the intention behind what is being symbolized drives the scene forward more than anything else. Thus, the film’s appetite for conflict does not play as mere ravenous gluttony for suffering.
It’s overall nothing that we haven’t seen before. You’ve got cops and robbers and poignant themes and a conceit of neo-realism that drives its formal logic. But what makes the film so successful is just how exquisitely wrought it is, bringing to life that which is often understood but rarely felt in such intimate and urgent ways. We primarily follow Stephane’s integration into the new inner-city task force that has collectively become abusive and jaded as its familiarity with Montfermeil has grown. We are also briefly introduced to a number of small but integral players in the conflict that later unfolds, such as a teenage boy who’s prized possession is a remote-controlled drone, a boy from a broken home who has stolen a lion from Italian circus mobsters, and a man fresh out of prison who is mocked by the cops for seeming fated to go back.
The film adopts a sort of Training Day approach to peeling back the layers–the nuances of its setting–all the while telling a story about chips on shoulders, about grudges and a kind of pack mentality that drives this ghetto. The kind of culturally rooted othering that pits one human against another in insurmountable ways. That is essentially its entire plot in the opening act. And for a director like Ly to make that work, to essentially create a dimensional backdrop and then build a story to take place in front of it is incredibly effective. Again, its not something we haven’t seen in La Haine or even Battle of Algiers. But when it is as immersively accomplished as it is here, it wields a staggering power.
From there, the film settles into more of a conventional plot, which is about exactly what it needs. Instead of sacrificing the integrity it has built up, it channels its nuanced backdrop into something sufficiently focused. Much in the tradition of the Italian Neo-Realists like De Sica and Rossellini, a kind of McGuffin is set up through which all these deeper conflicts, turmoil, and social insolvency are signified. The gang of Italians blame the mayor of Montfermeil, an impetuous hustler who essentially keeps his subjects and his enemies (the cops) eating from the palm of his hand, for facilitating the kidnapping of their prized lion cub (its actually in the possession of a random child). To prevent a blood bath of gang violence, the central cops–who are led by an abusive egotist named Cris–seek out to recover the lion and keep the peace.
What ensues is a mosaic of intersecting characters coming together to ultimately elevate an ever-growing tension between those who wield power in their own respective ways and those who are victimized by it. Ly ensures that the tension seeps into the film slowly but surely, mimicking the beats of a thriller like Training Day with Stephane’s morally conflicted emotional state. Yet, he never loses sight of the social realism that makes up the bigger picture.
His camera imbues the film with an immediacy through intimate, handheld cinematography. His style doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but rather illustrates why a film like this shouldn’t feel the need to. He walks a trail other filmmakers have already blazed, yet struts his stuff with a assured swagger. You can tell he believes in his vision; he has bought in fully to the earnestness that comes with making a film of such an important and incendiary topic. His dialogue rolls of the characters’ tongues in a way that makes the performances feel effortless. Surely, they are actually everything but effortless, yet the fidelity to colloquialism, the belief that dialogue should flesh out the scene rather than explode from within it complements Ly’s intentions tremendously. He sparingly picks his moments to pack a punch and has a highly trained instinct for when to really fire on the film’s dramatic cylinders. An impressive feat of restraint given the emotionally-charged nature of its subject matter.
Stephane, who is essentially the Ethan Hawke to Chris’ Denzel, serves as the moral compass of the film. Yet, as the film nears its ending, it becomes apparent that even he must choose sides and that his ethics will never trump the allegiances he selected when he decided to put on the badge. That is the most important takeaway from the film, especially watching it in the context of the protests and riots going on in the U.S. right now. The ideology, the culture that the badge represents inherently draws people into a paradigm of antagonism and unchecked power. The film so successfully illustrates the complicated ways in which the issue goes beyond just dirty cops. It’s about the underlying dirtiness of Police as an institution.
The film ends by leaving us hanging in a moment of caustic tension, one that is undeniably frustrating and certainly transgresses the typical resolution one might expect from a film of this nature. There’s downer endings, dark endings, and then whatever you call this–an ending that abruptly cuts off at the crescendo of its violent coda that it simultaneously left me cold but also glued to my seat, forced to ruminate on what I just saw. It uses Stephane as bait in an unforgiving cliffhanger, yet the intention does not play as a gimmick of suspense but rather as a symbolic gesture. It’s one which will definitely leave many resisting it on principle alone; endings of this nature usually elicit feelings of jaded resentment, as many viewers, I, too, have been wounded by other socially-driven film’s pretentious, quick and dirty slashes to the jugular. It’s inevitable that some viewers will struggle to really buy the efficacy of Ly’s intention.
But I think this film may have earned that abruptness. When I saw the film in January, I wasn’t so sure. However, re-evaluating it within this current context, I think it is just doing its due diligence to create an atmosphere, to unravel a setting that is simply frustrating in its own right. To provoke that frustration in the audience, to leave us feeling not only bereft of resolution but also stunned with such unsolvable horror, is a suitably admirable pursuit. I think the film is, in fact, quite valorous in this approach. Whether it “works” or not in a conventional sense feels irrelevant. Ly is frustrated as hell and is more than willing to provoke us on that level.
I think we you could use more films with that approach. I think there aren’t enough films–really good films–that just let it rip and don’t give a shit about its success or failure. The ending of Les Miserables is fitting for a film so unforgiving. It crackles with passion, with lamentation for its subject. And sometimes that is more important than whatever the hell sophistication and restraint looks like in 2020. Sometimes a film just needs to be angry.
Les Miserables is available for digital download and is now streaming on Amazon Prime.