The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - LES MISÉRABLES | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - LES MISÉRABLES

les miserables review
Transferred to a tough Parisian suburb, an idealistic cop finds himself caught up in tensions between his colleagues and the local community.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ladj Ly

Starring: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly

les miserables poster

Reappropriating a classic title in similar fashion to Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, director Ladj Ly's expansion of his previous short film sets its action in the deprived Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, once home to author Victor Hugo and the setting for his 1862 novel.

In the tradition of American cop thrillers (Dirty Harry; The New Centurions; Seven), Les Misérables sees an idealistic cop paired up with a cynical, embittered veteran, but the movie whose dynamic Ly's film most apes is Antoine Fuqua's Training Day.

les miserables 2019 review

Transferring to Montfermeil from a rural district to be close to his son, who is now in his ex-wife's custody, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) finds himself assigned to a street crime unit in the troubled banlieue of Les Bosquets. His partners in preventing, solving and committing crime are Chris (co-writer Alexis Manenti), a fratboyish thug who casually spouts racist and sexist invective, and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a laidback cop of African descent who laughs along with Chris in a manner that suggests it's the easiest way for him to get through the day.

The quiet and by the book Stéphane becomes an instant target for the boorish Chris's mockery, and the two men are quickly at each other's throats when Stéphane expresses his disapproval of the heavy-handed and abusive manner in which Chris harasses a trio of teenage girls at a bus stop. Stéphane and Chris's antagonism is put aside as they find themselves in the centre of a volatile situation when Gwada fires his 'Flash Ball' gun into the face of Issa (Issa Perica), an unarmed teenage boy, an incident caught on video by a young drone operator (Al-Hassan Ly). Like the protagonists of one of the Safdie brothers' New York set thrillers, the three cops race around the streets of Les Bosquets in an attempt to retrieve the damning footage.

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As Stéphane reluctantly accompanies Chris and Gwada as they call in favours from the various criminal factions that operate in the district, Ly lays out the power dynamic of a corner of Paris that might as well be a million miles away from the city tourists know. Les Bosquets is ostensibly run by The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), a criminal figure who employs Chris and Gwada as his own enforcers. In opposition to The Mayor is kebab shop owner Salah (Almamy Kanoute), a former convict who now spreads the word of Allah, doing his best to keep the suburb's young Muslims away from the criminal temptations of The Mayor. Thrown into the mix is a North African drug gang who owe Chris and Gwada a favour, and a travelling gypsy circus, whose members are threatening war if their stolen lion cub isn't returned.

les miserables 2019 review

The deeper into the high rise estates and alleyways of Les Bosquets Ly takes us, the more morally complex the scenario becomes. Stéphane is opposed to Chris and Gwada's attempts to save their skin, and he's worried about the welfare of Issa. Yet he lacks the moral fortitude to stand up to his partners in state-sanctioned crime. There's also the question of where the footage of the incident should best end up. Chris and Gwada want to destroy it to save their own skins. The Mayor wants to obtain it to use it to further control the cops. Salah wants it to be released for all to see the true nature of the men paid to maintain law and order. On the surface, the latter seems the right option, but as Stéphane explains, if the footage gets out it will likely provoke rioting, which will plunge Les Bosquets into even further deprivation.

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What makes Les Misérables such a gripping and stressful watch is how we're given little time to weigh up the ethical complexity of its powder keg scenario. In this way we're swept up in the madness along with Stéphane, who attempts to act as a broker between the various factions on opposing sides of the law.

Ly refuses to paint Gwada as any kind of cartoon villain (he's certainly not Denzel Washington's crooked Training Day cop), rather it becomes clear that he's let himself get sucked in by Chris's mentality. It's easy to imagine he once had Stéphane's ideals, but failed to do the right thing when he had the chance, and now he's in too deep. Given Gwada's ethnicity, his actions can't be written off as a simple case of racism. Ly explores something deeper here, the idea that the police can systemically turn its officers against their own communities.

les miserables 2019 review

Even though Chris is written and realised as a deeply unlikable figure, there is some twisted merit in his relationship with the suburb's criminal elements. Chris has clearly adopted a mentality of "if you can't beat them, join them," and his street clout in this way helps prevent the district from exploding into gang war, as demonstrated by his handling of the tensions between The Mayor and the circus gypsies. Ultimately, it's the fault of the Parisian authorities - who clearly would rather forget a place like Les Bosquets exists - for putting someone like Chris in charge of keeping the peace in an area with so many issues.

Such moral complexity is a breath of fresh air when compared to recent American movies that have attempted to tackle similar scenarios in a simplistic fashion. Where movies like Queen & Slim and BlacKkKlansman leave you in no doubt as to who you're supposed to root for, Ly offers no such comfort for his audience. He asks you what you might do in the same scenario. You might not like your own answer. I look forward to being tested by this filmmaker in the future.

Les Misérables is on Netflix UK now.

2020 film reviews