By Richard Ades
As Les Misérables opens, a group of dark-skinned youths joyfully celebrate France’s 2018 World Cup championship by taking part in a public event that includes a mass rendition of “La Marseillaise.” Director Ladj Ly’s apparent message: Despite being immigrants or the children of immigrants, the boys consider themselves just as French as those around them.
As Ly’s camera follows them back to their segregated Parisian neighborhood, however, we realize they don’t enjoy the same opportunities as their countrymen. This isn’t Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—there’s no Jean Valjean, no Javert, no idealistic revolutionaries. But there’s more than enough injustice to light the fuse of revolt, just as it did in Hugo’s tale.
The question is: Will it? Leading up to the answer is a harrowing dive into the lives of modern-day immigrants.
The Malian-born Ly, directing and co-writing his first full-length film, doesn’t create a one-sided portrait of discrimination. Those who take advantage of the local residents include a racist white cop named Chris (Alexis Manenti), but they also include the neighborhood’s black “Mayor” (Steve Tientchev), who uses his power to line his own pockets. There’s also a group of thugs who consort with the police to further their illegal activities.
We’re introduced to the resulting cauldron of resentment through the eyes of newcomer Stephane (Damien Bonnard), a divorced cop who’s moved to Paris to be closer to his young son. He’s assigned to ride along with Chris and his Malian-French partner, Gwada (Djibril Zonga), and soon becomes appalled by the liberties Chris takes with residents—for example, finding excuses to body-search teenage girls.
But before he can decide how to respond, Stephane and the others are thrown into the middle of potentially explosive situation brought on by a seemingly small crime: the theft of a lion cub from a traveling circus. This brings them into contact with two local boys—the trouble-prone Issa (Issa Perica) and the drone-flying Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly)—as well as a devout Muslim restaurateur named Salah (Almamy Kanoute). Thus begins a chain of events that results in unforeseen consequences for all concerned.
Why name this contemporary tale Les Misérables? That’s spelled out when the film ends with a quote from Hugo: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”
Viewers may quibble about whether Ly has proved the maxim, just as they may differ on whether it should win the “International Feature Film” Oscar for which it’s been nominated. (Probably not, as South Korea’s Parasite seems a worthy shoo-in.) But they’re likely to agree that Ly has created an exciting cautionary tale and an impressive full-length debut.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Les Misérables (rated R) opens Jan. 24 at the Drexel Theatre and Gateway Film Center.