“Les Miserables”; Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almany Kanoute; Direction: Ladj Ly; Rating: *** and 1/2 (three and a half stars)
Director Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables” is not a contemporary, retelling of Victor Hugo’s classic. In fact, it is a gritty and fiery urban thriller with a social urgency bubbling under the surface to provide added depth.
Set in the low-income housing district of Montfermeil, which was also the setting for parts of Victor Hugo’s novel, the film tells us of the class struggle and culture clashes between disenfranchised immigrants in Paris today.
The narrative follows police officer Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) on his first day of work at his new unit in the ghettos of Paris, where he patrols along with his experienced partners, the veteran short-fused squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti) aka “the Pink Pig” and his absolutely laidback companion Gwada (Djibril Zonga), who harass mostly the Muslim immigrants to the point of simmering community resentment.
It is in this community we meet a few key players, namely a little thief Issa (Issa Perica), who steals, “Johnny” – a lion cub from the circus. This nearly starts a gang war between the gypsies, led by the combative Zorro (Raymond Lopez), and the local mafia, led by their self-pronounced leader who is addressed as, “Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu).
When Zorro threatens retaliation, Ruiz gets them to agree to a deadline for the police to recover the animal. Soon, via social media, they trace the cub to Issa and when they confront him at the playground in the middle of a pitched crowd of kids, tensions escalate. An accident occurs where Issa is injured and by happenstance, the incident is recorded via a drone camera.
The police team panic for if the video gets public, the resulting outrage could engulf the whole city in violence. How the trio manipulate the different factions of the community to get hold of that footage, forms the crux of the tale.
This is an efficiently made thriller that confidently blends several subplots and moods to create an effective and potent drama that delivers a masterful commentary on life in this new century. There is a fair amount of compassion, humour and incidents showing how streetwise kids, hardened criminals and shady officers of the law are all trying to make ends meet in a dog-eats-dog world. While the story appears taut, there are moments that seem to be stretched for dramatic effects.
As for the cast, while every actor appears natural and delivers a compelling performance, Damien Bonnard as Ruiz and Issa Perica playing the “bad boy” – Issa, shine.
Designed like a cinema-verite, docu-drama with plenty of authenticity in its details of beat cops, a minority community under surveillance and mistrust, and the corrupting influence of power, the images are astutely captured by DoP Julien Poupard’s cinematography.
The visuals are accompanied by a stirring electro score from Pink Noise, which elevates the viewing experience by heightening the tension in key places and avoiding cliché soundtracks.
In general, with respect to the downtrodden, the film clearly indicates that the situations during Victor Hugo’s time and today, have not changed.
Overall, while the film appears like a steaming pressure cooker, ready to shoot out scalding steam, it ends on an ambiguous note with a quote by Victor Hugo, making the film feel incomplete and generic.