Les Miserables

The Plot:

When cop Stephané Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is assigned to ride with veteran cops Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), he is quickly thrust into the local neighborhood politics.

Drug Lord “Mayor” Le Maire (Steve Tientchen) is threatened by a traveling circus trainer when their lion cub is stolen. The circus trainer threatens to shoot-up the neighborhood and burn it down if the cub is not returned.

It’s now up to the bully cop Chris, his frustrated partner Gwada and newbie Ruiz to find the cub and calm the rising tension within the neighborhood. Yet, Chris and Gwada have their own methods and agendas as the day spirals out of control.

Kent’s Take:

“Les Miserables” is a drama touching upon themes of culture, racism and honor as seen through the French cultural lens.

Set in the poor suburb of Montfermeil where Victor Hugo wrote his famous novel “Les Miserables” in 1862, we see that little has changed – adults try to make ends meet any way they can while youths while away the day getting into trouble.

As this story unfolds, audiences discover that this narrative works totally within the gray areas of life. Chris and Gwada are frustrated with the inhabitants of their district for they always push back at everything the cops try to accomplish. This is because the cops use force and threats first. The local youths look to survive poverty with petty and sometimes serious crimes. The local “Mayor” lords over his neighborhood (and drug empire) with an indifferent and self-centered hand. Salah (Almamy Kanoute), of the Muslim Brothers, preaches the Muslim faith, enticing local boys and girls with food and treats to visit the Mosque.

Each group has an agenda and each is willing to step on the other to achieve that agenda. When Issa (Issa Perica) steals the cub, it throws off the delicate neighborhood balance exposing weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Writer/director Ladj Ly builds a well-paced story. We get to know all the players in this tragedy and their motivations, which defines the conflict and begins to build tension immediately.

Poverty and its grim reality are the fuel for this story and the characters are the catalysts. As the tension builds, Chris and Issa become the central figures that move the story forward. Unfortunately, Manenti’s performance as the bully Chris just isn’t convincing. Having such a central figure falter, throws off the narrative and other performances. Add to this a main character, Ruiz, who barely gets involved in the story, but once he does, fails to use his leverage effectively.

“Les Miserables” is a film imitating life with interesting questions, few suitable answers and plenty of emotional reactions.

Lynn's Take:

First of all, let’s explain the title: “Les Miserables” refers to the working-class suburb of Montfermeil where the three police officers work and where Victor Hugo wrote his famous 1862 novel about poverty and injustice.

Filmmaker Ladj Ly, inspired by the 2005 riots of Paris, first made a short film that won the Cesar (France’s version of the Academy Award), then developed a full-length version that won a Jury prize after its selection for the Palme d’Or competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Selected as France’s entry for the Best International Feature Film Oscar, it’s now one of the five nominees at the 92nd Academy Awards. Amazon has released it in theaters in St. Louis but will be available for streaming.

Intense and explosive, “Les Miserables” deals with a too-often story of unscrupulous law enforcement officers. His veteran colleagues Chris and Gwada train Ruiz on his first day about the way the town works, and their relationship with a drug lord, aka “The Mayor.”

Ruiz, who moved to Paris to be closer to his young son after his divorce, is our eyes and ears, and what we see isn’t pretty or right in this impoverished neighborhood. Pick an inner city in America, and you can see the parallels. Here, a Muslim brotherhood and displaced Nigerians are the subjects of the officers’ wrath. And the conditions can be traced all the way back to Hugo’s inspirations for the novel – that unbroken cycle of circumstances.

The owner of a circus claims a baby lion has been stolen. A troubled lad, Issa, is believed to be the thief and wants the animal as a pet. Things go out of control from there as officers attempt to arrest the boy, then locate a drone owner who has recorded them.

Will they face the consequences of their misguided actions? Ly’s first feature is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, and the French subtitles are immaterial. As fresh as today’s headlines, “Les Miserables” transports us into a powder keg that leaves its mark.