Of the many times Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is reminiscent of other, better things, the most exciting is the opening sequence, which, with its Steadicam roaming through young bodies in motion soundtracked by droning music, is like a more proletarian version of Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights. While that film depicts presumably well-off people intoxicated on youth and chemicals, Ly’s prologue focuses on lower class, mostly non-white Parisians flooding the gentrified city center to celebrate a sports victory. That charged juxtaposition of the unseen hoi polloi against accepted bourgeois “normalcy” foretells what’s to come but it also sets a bar Les Misérables fails to reach again.
Damien Bonnard stars as Stéphane, a police officer who has just relocated from a more rural beat to Paris’ Montfermeil suburb, an economically depressed and crime-plagued area that also served as a setting in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. He’s come to join a special anti-crime task force and is partnered up with Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). On Stéphane’s first day, a relatively trivial case of a stolen pet gets out of hand thanks to Chris and Gwada’s strong-arm tactics. A local boy catches the ensuing police brutality on video camera, setting in motion a mounting struggle among the cops and rival criminal organizations.
With its friction between first-day-on-the-job naivete and seasoned, cynical police corruption, Les Misérables‘ most obvious antecedent is Training Day. Chris and Gwada’s vileness, however, is more mundane and, thus, more insidious than that of Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris.
Yet, for all its intended weight as a social drama, Les Misérables is more successful, at least in its middle section, at adopting the aesthetics of something like Fuqua’s action/crime flick. The cinematography is fleet and economical, boiling kinetic sequences like foot chases down to their pulse-quickening essentials. Like every third movie these days, Les Misérables also employs drone shots but these at least have the intrigue of being diegetic.
Where Les Misérables falls apart is in trying to cram a full season of The Wire into 102 minutes. While that series had a tendency toward self-important condescension (highlighted by increasing examples of such in later David Simon work like The Deuce), its portrait of self-perpetuating institutional failure took on an air of tragedy. Here, Ly just seems cynical, assigning blame equally to those at the top of the crime pyramid and the occupying police forces that helped create the pyramid in the first place; if everyone in a given neighborhood is treated like a criminal no matter what, becoming one will eventually be the best option they have left.
Les Misérables marshals its subjects toward a bridge between the revolution of its namesake novel and the resistance of today. But then, frustratingly, it leaves its factions on either side of it, squaring off in an agnostic, “both-sides” cop out.