‘Les Miserables’ movie review: A brutal, yet beautiful critique of class, ethnicity and multiculturalism in France

A still from ‘Les Miserables’

A still from ‘Les Miserables’  

Filmmaker Ladj Ly delivers a raw, rough and unrelenting portrayal of violence endemic to life on the margins of society

Some films seem to get an added relevance over time and keep acquiring newer meanings in the varied contexts you view them in. Ladj Ly’s debut feature Les Miserables, based on his own short film, is one that has kept evolving over the past year. I added it to my list of the most searing and disturbing films on class wars when I watched it at Cannes. Recently, when viewed in the immediate aftermath of the violence unleashed in Delhi, it felt unwittingly prescient about the flashpoints between the fascist State might and machinery and the marginalised; a situation in which the only outcome is terrible human loss.

Ly’s film traverses a full circle, from the start to the finish, when it comes to its visual arc and narrative movement. It kicks off with images of joy and togetherness ushered in by a beautiful game of football at the FIFA World Cup. People across all divides unite in the country’s blue jerseys, under the French flag and the fandom of Mbappe.

As opposed to this cheerful montage, the film ends, quite like Ankur and Fandry, with a sharp, pithy image, a signifier of abject hopelessness and desperation. And a quote from Victor Hugo to put it all in perspective: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” You reap what you sow, violence begets violence in which often it’s the children who are the victims and their innocence the first casualty.

Between the beginning and the final act is an expose of the deep fissures underlying the unifying passion for sports, an unending chain of hatred that refuses to snap. Do the French ideals of liberty, fraternity and egalitarianism truly hold? In a sideways evocation of Hugo’s timeless classic by the same title, about the humiliation of the dispossessed, Ly powerfully brings to light the contemporary class and colour and religion and race politics. His springboard being the 2005 riots of Paris. Not much has changed in all these years.

Les Miserables (French)
  • Director: Ladj Ly
  • Starring: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Percia
  • Run time: 103 minutes

The kinetic, on the move camera mirrors the simmering unrest and discontent as it takes us into the city’s tough suburbs and its battling gangs along with the crime patrol unit of three officers: Stephane (Damien Bonnard), Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and Chris (Alexis Manenti). It’s a world of strifes and fights. On one hand are the deep and long held prejudices of the privileged, and on the other the bottomless anger of the powerless fed by the persistent, everyday harassment and humiliation. Far from getting contained, the resentment only gets stoked and built up and you know that there is no way it can end other than in resistance and rebellion, individual as well as collective.

There is tonal pause in the middle with an extended sequence of the officers going home: a distraught and guilt-ridden Gwada with his elderly mother; Chris, who has no qualms about frisking young girls, with his little daughters and wife seemingly unaffected by the events of the day and Stephane in an empty apartment, still waiting to unpack, calling his his son. It’s time of peace and calm but an uneasy one as you realise soon after.

A terrific ensemble of professional actors, first-timers and non-actors brings alive Ly’s astutely observed characters. They make their presence felt irrespective of the duration of their stay on screen. The rough, raw feel of the film reflects how things are on the edge, can escalate suddenly and run out of hand and how violence is endemic to life on the margins. It can erupt with an unforeseen rage at the any provocation. “What if voicing your anger is the only way to be heard?” asks a character rhetorically. A moment that leaves you badly jolted and speechless. Ladj Ly might be savage in his critique of class, ethnicity and multiculturalism issues specific to France, but his portrayal of the revenge of the oppressed underclass is a warning that societies and States across the world could well heed.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 4:28:00 AM |

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