Do The Right Thing ignited screens thirty years ago with its incendiary attitude towards racism in the United States. Now in 2019, we’ve been graced with a similarly incendiary film with Ladj Ly’s solo directorial debut, Les Misérables. Borrowing its title and some themes from Victor Hugo’s seminary novel (though little else), the film tackles head-on with one of the chief problems in modern-day urban Paris: perverse racism in French society. Though a certain circle of Twitter users may be upset that this was France’s official selection to compete for the Best International Feature Oscar over the excellent Portrait of a Lady on Fire; it’s easy to see why they chose this torpedo of a film to represent their country.
Inspired by the chaotic riots that swept Paris in 2005, Les Misérables takes place over the course of two brutally hot days in the Montfermeil neighborhood of Paris. Newly arrived police officer Pento (Damien Bonnard) joins hothead Chris (Alexis Manenti) and a more controlled Gwada (Djibril Zonga) on his first day as part of the SCU, who patrol neighborhoods under the delusion that the local immigrants and Muslims actually need them. They frisk young girls without just cause, act openly racist towards a traveling Romani and young members of the Muslim Brotherhood alike. They terrorize the area with an iron fist under the belief that they’re protecting the neighborhood. Tensions rise when young Issa (Issa Perica) steals a lion cub from the traveling circus, launching a chain of events that will embroil the whole of Montfermeil in chaos, that reaches a violent and bloodied conclusion.
Ly’s film openly embraces its influences (Spike Lee, Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine) and twists them with a modern sensibility that fits for the current cinematic era. Employing all kinds of tricks, from smooth camera transitions to visually stunning drone shots, Ly constructs Montfermeil with a brutal sense of reality. The slow boil of the story builds a borderline unbearable level of tension; as conflicts arise and divisions between the oppressors and the oppressed become crystal clear. Ly keeps raising the heat until the projector in your auditorium practically catches fire! It’s wild and reactionary in the best ways possible; using its time and multiple plot-lined story to create a full, rich world filled with injustice and simmering anger.
Though the film’s leads are arguably its three police officers (all excellent in their own ways), it’s Perica who steals the show as young, troubled Issa. His transformation over the course of the film from excited child to furious rebel (aided by some nasty wounds gained after being flash-balled in the face), is truly something to behold. Needless to say, the final shot of Les Misérables will sear itself into the mind of many Academy voters — and anyone in the audience watching. Les Misérables is a barn burning firecracker that takes no prisoners!
Les Misérables screened at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release the film in select cinemas on January 10th, 2020.