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‘Les Misérables’ is a Raw and Unromantic Portrait of a Community Under Siege

In the eastern suburbs of Paris sits a commune, Montfermeil. Also known as the home of the Thénardiers in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, the community of Montfermeil is now featured in Ladj Ly’s crime-drama, Les Misérables. The film with the same name as the definitive French tragedy follows an entirely new plot, shining a light on an often unexplored part of northern France. 

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature, and is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.

(Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

From the 1945 romantic-comedy Children of Paradise to the 2008 action film Taken it is without a doubt that northern France has a long standing reputation for being a valuable filming location. However Mali-born writer and director Ladj Ly is determined to shift the narrative surrounding this region and its people. Often we are fed cinematic depictions of a softer France, an environment filled with romance, baguettes and fashion. Ly grants us an opportunity to experience an unrefined, raw side of France, a part of French culture that is not promoted on travel brochures. This is what I deeply appreciate about Ly as a screenwriter.

The thematic inspiration of the film developed from the 2005 rising tensions between North African immigrants and law enforcement, when two boys were killed in an attempt to flee from the police. Les Misérables opens up with a scene of children, who look to be no older than fourteen, bunching together as they move into a much larger patriotic crowd. It’s 2018 and France is celebrating the FIFA World Cup. A sequence of cinematic images places Issa (Issa Percia), in the center of each shot. The director’s cut is impeccable, within a mere two-to-three minutes, you already have a good sense of who Issa is: a witty, energetic, teenaged leader. He, like many others wraps themselves in the French flag, while unapologetically soaking up the electrifying moment. 

Word to the wise: It goes without saying that every human has five basic needs: food, water, shelter, clean-air and sleep. However for Europeans, especially for those of African descent, they’ve added a sixth necessity: soccer. So, if you find yourself visiting France during a World Cup, be prepared to adjust your walking pace to fit that of the insane crowd.

(Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Anyway, shifting gears back to Les Misérables, there are really three main characters. In an attempt to be closer to his son, former first responder, Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) moves to Paris and joins the anti-crime unit. Mr. Ruiz works under the command of police officer Chris (Alexis Manenti). Apart from schooling Stéphane on how to “assert his power” in the community, Chris devotes himself to policing under the proposition: “Never sorry. Always right.” By having little connection to those in the community in which he “serves” approaching African and Arab civilians with this temperament is pretty risky. His power is often challenged leaving his left-hand man, Gwada (Djebril Zonga) in charge of dismantling tensions. Gwada grew up in the community which stamps him as a local hero. However, you’ll soon learn (as I did) that Gwada is far from a hero, as he constantly enables Chris and seldom corrects his ignorance. It is a struggle to understand this tactic.

Our climax arises when the worlds of Issa and the trio of cops collide over the kidnapping of a baby lion. When approached, Issa swiftly runs off while his crew stands behind and ambushes the cops. This is definitely not a scenario to romanticize but, if your friends don’t go this hard for you, are they really your friends? Gwada, the once distant and hesitant cop, makes a bold “out-of-body” decision when he shoots Issa in the face with a flash-ball. Gwada’s brief break from reality results in a community brawl between, local gypsies, a Muslim brotherhood, a corrupt mayor and a local thug-turned-community-leader. 

The film leaves a lot open for discussion, which is a bummer if you prefer solid conclusions. I honestly would have loved a closing scene where Stéphane goes home and plops down on the couch with a huge bottle of wine. He deserves an accolade, after that jacked up “orientation” day. To see for yourself why this film was nominated for Best International Feature at the Oscars, stream it now on Amazon Prime.

Les Misérables is now streaming on Amazon Prime, jouir!

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