Review by Sean Boelman
Not to be confused with the Victor Hugo novel or its musical adaptation, Ladj Ly’s new film Les Misérables is united with its namesake in the fact that they are both searing explorations of the French justice system. Expanded from Ly’s short of the same name, this is an ambitious, if at times messy, feature debut from a filmmaker with a very defined and passionate voice.
The movie follows a young cop on his first day on the job in an impoverished suburb in France as he comes to terms with the conflicts between the police and the various underworld criminal organizations that lay claim to the streets. Ultimately, the plot is simple, little more than a device to deliver the social commentary that Ly has on his mind. However, the things that Ly has to say are very compelling, and as a result, the film is truly fascinating.
If Ly should be faulted for anything, it is that he tries to juggle too much with his narrative. Ly’s perspective is undeniably refreshing and unique, but with the movie’s runtime clocking in at under an hour and forty five minutes, some of the film’s themes aren’t explored with the depth for which Ly obviously shows the potential. The movie’s discussion of police brutality is very important and quite resonant, but it often feels like the exploration of racism could have been even more hard-hitting than it was.
One of the most intriguing things about Ly’s style is the way in which he handles such gritty and grounded topics with a story that is somewhat fanciful at times. A significant portion of this film’s plot revolves around the main characters as they investigate the disappearance of a gang leader’s prized baby lion. With this bizarre and almost humorous twist on a familiar tale, Ly takes what could have been straightforward didactics and turns it into something more satirical and perhaps even more effective.
Ly also does a very good job of presenting the characters of the movie in a morally ambiguous light. While the film does take a very clear stance on the topic of police brutality, it does not simply villainize the characters. Instead, Ly takes a much more nuanced approach, making the audience understand the nature of these characters not through over-the-top dialogue or a manipulative shooting style, but the realism of the atrocities which they commit.
The two lead actors of the movie do an absolutely wonderful job in their roles, providing a great dramatic foil for each other. The relationship between the two leads, a veteran and the new kid on the block, is developed organically through the chemistry of the two actors that play them, Damien Bonnard and Alexis Manenti. Bonnard is particularly impressive as the idyllic transfer, his expression of emotion throughout the film closely mirroring what the audience is feeling.
Visually, Ly shoots the movie in a gritty and down-to-earth way, seemingly in the hopes that the film will pack even more of an emotional punch. While this does backfire at times, making the movie feel overly messy, the purposefully unpolished nature of the film does a respectable job of transporting the audience into the streets of France. By shooting the movie from a perspective not too dissimilar from that of the protagonist, Ly cements the audience as seeing the film from the perspective of an outsider newly entering this situation themselves.
Les Misérables is admittedly a bit rough around the edges, but as a showcase for Ly’s talents and potentials, it is a fine feature debut. Ly is certainly someone to watch, as he obviously has quite a bit to say, and he has the skill set to do it.
Les Misérables is now playing in theaters.