This Oscar nominee isn’t Victor Hugo’s classic. Or is it?
Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Opens Feb 7
If you still think French films are about lecherous old dudes and surly young females who don’t act like recognizable humans, you need to get out more. Modern French cinema is raw, uncomfortable and boundary-pushing. It’s a shame we don’t get more of it beyond watered-down American remakes and award winners too celebrated to be denied.
Les Misérables is the latter. Written and directed by Ladj Ly based on his short film, this Cannes Film Festival prize winner and Best International Foreign Feature Oscar nominee isn’t directly related to Victor Hugo’s novel but there’s plenty of connective tissue.
Set in Montfermeil — the perennially impoverished Paris suburb where Hugo set much of his masterpiece — the movie follows town cop Stephane in his first two days on the anti-crime squad. The place is a cultural melting pot, filled with sniping gangs, wandering children and general unease. Stephane’s colleagues, Chris and Gwada, walk the line between bluster and brutality.
A seemingly absurd investigation — the disappearance of a lion cub from a less-than-cheery circus — threatens to pit the Roma against the kingpin known as The Major. Not ones to tread carefully, the anti-crime squad botches the case and brings tensions to a boil.
Les Misérables works well as a portrayal of social issues bumping against each other in depressed urban areas, and as a thriller. No one is innocent, not even the children. Stephane seems to at least have ethics, but in his efforts to fit in he puts his conscience in check for too long.
Race is the film’s most complicated aspect. It’s never directly addressed but it impacts every interaction. Director Ly doesn’t particularly care about the fairness of his portrayals (his offhand use of the slur “gypsies” gives me pause). His main concern is drawing a direct line between the absence of positive male role models and the children’s disregard for authority figures.
The main plot of Les Misérables is solved in 90 minutes but the movie gives itself time to take stock. The epilogue has a potent, unresolved action sequence likely to irk those who need resolutions but it’s truer to the story than any clean ending would be.