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Les Miserables (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"Not Hugo's tale, but familiar all the same."
4 stars

"Les Misérables", France's entry for Best International Feature in this year's Academy Awards, is absolutely something that many viewers will have seen before, even if many American viewers may be a bit surprised by Paris's demographics, but it plays out well. That this is what happens is somewhat inevitable, since you can't really make a movie about poor people and minorities not trusting the police actually be shocking in this day and age; even a fiction filmmaker can just document or speculate upon the mechanisms by which the situation sustains itself or breaks down, hoping to make something that speaks to those who already understand and attracts the attention of those who might be persuaded.

So, the meat of the film starts with a familiar situation: Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is a cop who has just transferred to Paris to be close to his son, and on his first day is assigned to ride with Chris (Alexis Manenti), the unit commander who embraces the nickname "Pink Pig", and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), Chris's more laid-back partner who actually doesn't stick out like a sore thumb in a district where much of the population is poor, black, and/or Muslim. It is expected to by a quiet day - at 35 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), people aren't inclined to come out and start trouble - and is, more or less, until members of a traveling circus start raising hell at a local market, claiming their lion cub was stolen. Issa (Issa Perica), a kid known for finding his way into trouble, is the one who was dumb enough to post about it on social media, and things get more explosive when another kid about the same age, Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), is flying a drone when Chris's team chases Issa down.

First, though, Filmmaker Ladj Ly shows us people gathering in the center of town, following the World Cup as France makes an unexpectedly deep run, kids wearing the French tricolor as a cape and all cheering together. It's a scene where nothing particularly happens, but it's useful for setting the scene, reminding audiences who might not be aware just how many people of color live in and around Paris and even, specifically, how many of the athletes whose names people are shouting have commented that they are French when they win and African when they lose. I'm anxious for a second viewing to see just how many characters from later in the movie show up here so that Ly can show the ideal Paris, even as it is quickly revealed to be an illusion.

He does this in very capable fashion, getting the viewer immersed while setting specific pieces up to play out later, though not so much as to make it a puzzle box - for instance he'll remind the audience later that they saw Issa in an early scene, just enough to set up a more detailed picture without having to spend a lot of time going off on tangents. The film spends more set-up than you might expect, and the bulk of the film is actually about the clash between escalation and de-escalation as much as the typical "us versus them" siege mentality that the police tend to adopt (an attitude that isn't often explicitly racist here despite the white cop's eagerness to throw his weight around). Ly is pointed enough not to retreat to "both-sides" neutrality even when taking a broader perspective.

Having a sort of broad view from above means that there isn't necessarily a lot of room for standout performances as opposed to a tight ensemble. Damien Bonnard plays the central point-of-view character as more than just a blank onto which viewers can project themselves, always aware of how tricky it is to be actively conciliatory, while Alexis Manenti similarly keeps Chris's monstrous nature on a tight leash: The film has him odious all the time, but even when his worst properties are unleashed, he's neither raving nor an affect-less psychopath, but the bad person people will try to make excuses for. Djibril Zonga gives an interesting performance as Gwanda, relaxed and colorful, but never extraneous, the sort that feels like it will reveal more the second time through, since it never looks showy but lets the filmmakers do a lot with the character without having to reposition him. Young actors Issa Perica and Al-Hassan Ly impress as well, and the larger ensemble clicks well enough that individuals can show up just two or three times throughout the movie and still have the audience know where they're coming from.

Les Misérables goes on a bit after it might otherwise end, and that makes it feel a little stretched as a movie: It's like an episode of TV that resolves that week's story with ten minutes to go and then spends some time examining what this means for the ongoing subplots, only there's another bit after that. It's something of a stop-and-start, but also useful in reframing the precarious balance it would end on either way: It suggests that, ultimately, this may be out of the hands of administrative bodies (formal and informal) and into the hands of the people. That may be messy and violent, but eventually the people affected have to have a say.

Which, differences of time and similarities of place aside, is where Ly's film circles around to being a spiritual successor to Victor Hugo's novel of the same name, even as many themes and circumstances are necessarily different. It's a story that's familiar in a lot of ways, but one which bears repeating and updating when told this well.

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originally posted: 01/29/20 05:26:19
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