Cinéma réaliste: Les Misérables is a compelling exploration of modern strife

Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is a multi-faceted, socio-political thriller set in suburban Paris. The film won the Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Image courtesy Amazon studios Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is a multi-faceted, socio-political thriller set in suburban Paris. The film won the Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Image courtesy Amazon studios

Despite its name, Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is not a retelling of Victor Hugo’s famous novel. But there are many ways it closely resembles its namesake. Within the confines of a tight thriller and a runtime of less than two hours, Ly explores questions of justice, crime, redemption, rebellion, collective and individual responsibility, and the socio-political role of architecture in modern-day Paris—including in the same suburb that inspired Hugo’s novel. The particular issues of today are different than the 1832 June Rebellion, but the underlying questions facing humanity remain the same. If an insurrection is morally justified but destined to fail, should it be quashed before it begins? Should we punish lawbreakers or maintain stability? If society is a pot about to boil over, should we struggle to keep the lid on and risk building more pressure, or let it happen and face the consequences?

Though the title invites comparisons, Ly’s Les Misérables is very much its own film, a bold societal and stylistic statement on par with City of God and Do the Right Thing. It’s an incredible mix of crime thriller, day-in-the-life police procedural, and social realist commentary with spectacular flourish, and would be an easy favorite to win Best International Feature Film if Parasite were not also nominated.

Les Misérables

R, 102 minutes

Violet Crown Cinema

The film follows the SCU, a team dedicated to monitoring lower-income, predominantly immigrant communities in Paris led by Chris (Alexis Manenti), whose methods wouldn’t be out of place in the Old West; depending on how you look at it, he’s either highly effective or completely reckless. His partner is Gwada (Djibril Zonga), an officer of African descent who is prepared for the worst but favors containment and cooperation over confrontation. Joining them is Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), nicknamed “Pento” or “Greaser.” During their regular patrol, they must address tensions after a boy named Issa (Issa Perica) steals a lion cub from Roma zookeepers. To stop an all-out confrontation, the SCU has to find Issa and return the cub, but the distrust they’ve created in the past complicates the present, particularly when a series of mistakes by the police threatens Issa’s life.

What follows is best left unspoiled, but is a masterstroke of stylistic and thematic escalation. A situation arises that could have been avoided, but once it arrives, it cannot be defused. The characters can only hope to navigate these events with their lives and their values intact. Some may not appreciate the ending, calling it a cliffhanger, but it is the only honest way to complete the emotional arc of this film. Issa is left with a choice: stand up for himself and risk everything, including the lives around him, or stand down and continue in his unsustainable life. This is where we are as a society: We can either act now to avoid this unwinnable game, or be prepared to lose everything in the blink of an eye, the pull of a trigger, the lighting of a Molotov cocktail.

As a film, Les Misérables is top-to-bottom perfection. The direction is nimble yet grounded, always focused even as the events of the story spiral out of control. The tension stays at a low hum, the characters are deep no matter how secondary to the narrative, and it has a compelling moral core even if it has no definitive answers; attempting to wrap everything up would have been dishonest and manipulative. At the start of the movie, Issa and his friends sing “La Marseillaise” in celebration of a soccer victory, and like that anthem, Les Misérables is a call to fight for what’s right, but also a warning that the solution is not as simple as taking up arms.

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.

See it again

Groundhog Day

PG, 103 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, February 1 and 2

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