Do The Right Thing: Our Review of ‘Les Miserables’

Do The Right Thing: Our Review of ‘Les Miserables’

Ladj Ly re-imagines Les Miserables into a modern day context, using for its setting the French victory during the last World Cup. That event should both be a win for France and its new, diverse population. But this thriller already deconstructs the myths that your average news reading person already knows aren’t true. It shows a more cynical, less touristy version of the country. Instead of Paris, it takes us to an Eastern suburb of Montfermeil, a new and hostile environment for a rural Franco-Spanish beat cop, Stephane Ruiz (Daniel Bonnard).

Today is Stephane’s first day patrolling Montfermeil and the day eventually goes sideways. He spends his time under the wing of his supervisors Chris (Alexis Manetti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). They have to break up a fight between the city’s Mayor (Steve Tientchou), Zorro (Raymond Lopez), a circus show runner, and their respective gangs. Zorro accuses a local boy of African descent of stealing one of his lion cubs. Although the unit brushes this off as animal control, they decide to find the cub and its thief, thinking that that will diffuse the situation.

The movie makes the day fly by as the unit finally gets its thief, who happens to be Issa. He asks Issa where the cub is, not getting a proper answer even as he puts Issa on the ground. Things get worse for Issa in ways that I won’t spoil, as predictable as his arc is. Despite that, the film employs its share of shaky cam in capturing Stephane’s reactions to all of this, an obvious but passable representation of manageable chaos. During these confrontations, Ly looks to Stephane, choosing his version of masculinity because he prefers not to flex like Chris does. Some of the citizens do the same, their haunting close-ups begging to Stephane to do what’s right.

Some of the choices in depicting this world are more commendable than others, especially its depiction of race. The most prominent depictions of black men here Gwada and the Mayor. Both, surprisingly, want to maintain the status quo at the risk of not pursuing justice for Issa. And Ly, a man of colour, is qualified to show such a nuanced portrayal. But my problem here is less about its rehashing of both white and diverse French narratives. He aims to depict the real predicament of boys of colour like Issa and the anger he feels about it. But he mistakes it occasionally with the sadism that characters of colour already experience in fiction.

Let’s take a break to address what I’ll call this movie’s recent history. Tom watched this during TIFF and loved it. France chose to submit this and not Portrait of a Lady on Fire for its Oscar submission. This choice is more conventional than usual. We normally think costume dramas like Portrait are perfect Oscar bait. But France has mostly been submitting contemporary dramas since 2008. I watched this the day the the Academy listed this as one of its nominees for Best Foreign Film. It comprises and does not ruin a good crop of films. And even if it’s the weakest of the four I’ve seen so far and is not as good as Portrait, its revelations and catharsis show that it deserves that nomination.

TIFF is showing Les Miserables again starting January 17. For more information go to https://tiff.net/events/les-miserables.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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