REVIEW: Les misérables [2019]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½


Rating: R | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: November 20th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Le Pacte / Amazon Studios
Director(s): Ladj Ly
Writer(s): Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini & Alexis Manenti

“Never sorry. Always right.”

You have to give Ladj Ly credit for seeing the potential in expanding his acclaimed short film about a trio of Anti-Crime Brigade cops outside of Paris in Montfermeil while also knowing it wasn’t perfect. There was a lot packed into Les misérables that could use some room to breathe, but the narrative itself needed tweaking too since the character he and co-writer Alexis Manenti chose to have a horrific mistake the first time around wasn’t necessarily the correct one. So the two joined with Giordano Gederlini on their feature length adaptation, taking a step back to understand the dynamics at play when a group of men in authority of different races, backgrounds, and experience are thrown together. They found better way to tell their tale.

It’s amazing how one alteration puts things onto a completely different course. The original short was a glimpse at the impossibility of being a good person while wearing a badge in a volatile neighborhood. This retooled Les misérables instead proves to be a sprawling exposé of the universal futility that is our communal inability to escape a never-ending cycle of violence bred from a forever-stagnant economic, political, and social disparity on both sides of the law. Ly’s decision to use Victor Hugo’s title became a mirror to show how little has changed in nearly two hundred years. Montfermeil is still treated as a ghetto, cops are still using whatever force necessary to rule through fear rather than respect, and rebellion remains an inevitable tool to reclaim one’s voice.

The leads: Chris (Manenti) commands the task force’s day shift. He’s a hothead with a chip on his shoulder that uses his position to blur the line between right and wrong in pursuit of a good time. People don’t fear and/or hate him because he’s a cop. They fear and/or hate him because he’s a sleaze-bag who acts like he’s above the law in a world that actively agrees he is. Gwada (Djebril Zonga) is his number two. Despite being more sensitive and diplomatic when it comes to dealing with those citizens who’ve rightfully tuned Chris out, he’s also bought into the brotherhood aspect of the unit and will compromise his conscience if necessary. Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is the new guy just arrived from the countryside.

The majority of the runtime deals with this threesome’s first patrol together. Gwada laughs to bust Ruiz’s balls and Chris unsurprisingly goes even further to create scenarios in which to haze the newbie on life in Montfermeil. Maybe that means riding up to some teenage girls and sexually harassing them to see how Ruiz reacts (a crucial shift from short to feature on the “reason” to frisk the girls adds a lot). Maybe it means sending him into a Muslim Brotherhood restaurant to ask an infamously rehabilitated member of the community (Almamy Kanouté‘s Salah) a seemingly stupid question. Or it could be a legitimate case of police work—introducing Ruiz to Zorro (Raymond Lopez‘s Gypsy) and The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) while they’re at each other’s throats.

Why the vitriol? A Black boy (Issa Perica‘s Issa) has stolen Zorro’s circus owner’s lion cub and he impulsively heads out to accuse the man who’s seemingly in control of the young Black boys running amok around town. It may be shocking to see, but Chris actually jumps in to diffuse the situation and promise he’ll find the animal and solve the problem. This isn’t out of a sense of duty, though. Nor is it a moral imperative to settle tensions. Chris instead reacts with selfish motives as always and knows that doing this “favor” will keep Zorro and The Mayor in line whenever he comes calling for information. After all, The Mayor is already showing he’s aware that the cops need him more than he needs them.

La Pince’s (Nizar Ben Fatma) Middle Eastern crime boss rounds out the trio of racial factions by proving yet another piece to the puzzle that is Chris’ pocket of resources. He’s probably the most genuinely friendly to this white cop of them all, but that’s probably only because Chris cracks down harder on the Black population to keep them enraged beneath any façades of compliance they project. He’s who Chris turns to when a flash bang gun goes off and seriously injuries a kid. He’s the one outside of the rift between Zorro and The Mayor and therefore ambivalent about what happens to the former’s lion or the latter’s “ward” as long as he’s then owed a favor of his own. They’re all just men jockeying for power.

And that’s what makes Ly’s film great. Where the short’s abbreviated runtime made it so the cops get away with what they do because they have the most leverage, the feature reveals how leverage is a relative concept. Maybe Chris and company do lord higher because of their badges, but Zorro, The Mayor, and La Pince are playing with their communities’ lives just as recklessly to fit their own advantage. That’s why the aforementioned sense of futility shifts. Ruiz is watching everything unfold as an outsider torn between his explicit duty to protect the community and implicit duty to protect his team. Maybe leaning towards the first makes him better than the rest, but he’s still complicit. He’s still a man using kids as pawns for his agenda.

There will be no escaping the consequences of what happens, though. Maybe it’s psychological for some (Al-Hassan Ly‘s Buzz captured the linchpin event of police brutality with his drone and can’t help souring on the idea that he can trust anyone with a badge after what they do to try and procure his memory card). Maybe it’s physical for others (the boy who gets shot). Salah must face a spiritual reckoning knowing there are no right answers or purely altruistic sides while The Mayor and La Pince will discover that the truly oppressed (the kids born into this hell-scape who are then hardened and destroyed by it to fuel its perpetual machine of crime, blood, and death) can recognize how their opportunism is no better than Chris’ entitlement.

It leads to an incendiary climax that shows how youth inherits the world. What they do with it is unknown. That life in Montfermeil has changed so little in two centuries exposes how they often follow in the footsteps of those who came first. People constantly compromise the future of their own communities for personal advancement and it’s that selfishness that keeps us in such dire straits when it comes to knowing who to trust and when to stand firm. Because how many of us will acknowledge our wrongs and let ourselves endure the suffering of reprisal? Let’s say Ruiz finds a path towards peace, but only for the adults at the children’s expense. Doesn’t he still deserve retribution? Going halfway has never—and will never—be enough.


photography:
courtesy of Amazon Studios

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