Every review of the new Les Misérables will probably start the same way – this movie is not the megahit Les Mis or anything like it. It’s not even an adaptation of the original 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. The movie is directed and co-written by Ladj Ly, born in Mali, and this Les Misérables is unique.
The movie opens on an African kid in the rough Paris suburb called Montfermeil. The kid runs outside draped in the French flag, and soon he’s with his friends in a huge cheering mob because France has just won the 2018 World Cup in soccer. The throng surges around the great monuments of Paris, the Arc de Triomph and the Eiffel Tower. Along with everyone else, the kid and his friends sing the French national anthem, “The Marseillaise.” But national unity ends there.
The film switches to a man riding alone on a train into the city; he’s not smiling. His name is Ruiz. He’s starting his first day as a member of a special unit of the French police and will be one of three in a car patrolling that Paris suburb.
This Les Misérables is not a happy film and it doesn’t make a hit musical out of poverty. But it honors Victor Hugo’s vision of the misery of poverty. The partners of Ruiz, a white man named Chris, and Gwada, an African, have been at this work for a long time. They’re as desperate as the people they’re supposed to serve and protect. Chris may not be racist, but he’s mean. He’s the sergeant and he leads the trio into a string of bullying confrontations, and through them the film shows the tumult of a society that teeters constantly on the verge of chaos.
People from all over the Third World live in Montfermeil. The Muslim brotherhood tries to instill proper values in the children; they encourage kindness and good behavior – but in the midst of so much desolation it’s like spitting into the wind.
Someone has stolen a lion cub from a Gypsy circus, and Gypsy men wielding clubs want it back. A Muslim leader responds quietly that no one should imprison a lion, which may be philosophically elegant and true, but it will not appease the Gypsies. A boy named Issa is the culprit. Children always brag on Instagram and the cops find him. And everything goes downhill from there.
Until then, Les Misérables is interesting enough. There’s not a lot of story, but the movie is full of the physical and social textures of Montfermeil – the dreary, crumbling apartment projects, the range of social groups and the tensions between them, and between everyone in the area and these three special unit policemen whose job seems to be to make everything worse.
But once Issa is injured, story takes over. Director Ladj Ly shows the cops in their homes and then a sunset, but these calming images – the stuff that makes you think a movie is ending – only up the tension. The picture can’t end there, and it doesn’t.
Young Issa is the key and he turns into one of the scariest movie characters I know. You’d never expect that this kid who spends his life on minor boyish shenanigans has such capacity for organization and strategy. But Les Misérables gives out the full-frontal rage of a boy – a child – warped by the conditions of his life. The film never shows Issa with a family, with any adults who might help him find a useful way through this hellish life. There may not be a sane, reasoned response to the life Issa has been born into. So, there he is facing down the police, and us.