Les Miserables movie review: Tracing the anatomy of a Riot

Updated: 13 March, 2020 12:40 IST | Johnson Thomas | Mumbai

Les Miserables starts off on a matter-of-fact tone while detailing a routine patrolling of the impoverished suburb of Montfermeil by the anti-crime squad consisting of Chris, Gwada and recent transplant Stephane.

A still from Les Miserable
A still from Les Miserable

Les Miserables
U/A: Crime, Drama

Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Steve Tientcheu, Jeanne Balibar, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Almamy Kanoute
Director: Ladj Ly
Rating: pic

Documentary filmmaker Ladj Ly's debut fiction film "Les Misérables" (with a title that harkens back to the inequities that spurred the creation of Victor Hugo's classic)may have gotten its creative surge from the riots that broke out and raged for over three weeks in the suburbs of Paris and other cities in France in 2005, but it stands universally as a deep, contemporary understanding of the nature of a 'riot' - incited by an seemingly innocuous incident that triggers a community's rage - one that has been suppressed over time by heaps of injustices and disappointments.

The events in this film take place in 2018 but the haunting reminisces of that horrific three weeks are not far away from the film maker's mind. One of the characters in the film even references that traumatic time. The context may be the Paris riots but the theme applies to India as well. This film in fact comes at an opportune time (for India viewers) as it releases just after the horrific, unforgivable incidents that lead to the recent Delhi riots and may give people a perspective on how they unwittingly become party to a deplorable, inhumane event. In both countries, be it France or India, the situation has become even more polarized and damaged and anarchical political intent, criminal bungling and judicial impotence are only fueling further unparalleled unrest.

"Les Misérables" starts off on a matter-of-fact tone while detailing a routine patrolling of the impoverished suburb of Montfermeil by the anti-crime squad consisting of Chris(Alexis Manenti) , Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and recent transplant Stéphane(Damien Bonnard). For Stephane it's a culture shock of sorts working alongside unscrupulous, overbearing colleagues like Chris and Gwada. Then a lion cub is kidnapped and all hell breaks loose between local rival gangs and the three men are caught up in a conflagration that neither of them saw coming.

The opening scenes, that of celebration after the World Cup in 2018, shows a group of kids joining the giant crowds cheering on the streets of Paris. Their pride in being French nationals is unmistakable. The events that follow are not as clear cut thereafter. The commando style functioning of cops, the injustices heaped on minority kids and youth and the unchallenged racist, communal bias within the upholders of the law, lie exposed here.

Watch the trailer of Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti-starrer Les Misérables here:

Ladj Ly's narrative literally lures the audience into becoming unwitting eye-witnesses to a travesty that could have well been avoided. The narrative gathers tension as the events start unfolding and eventually erupting – like a long-dormant volcano that suddenly starts emitting lava. The similarity in style and execution to Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine is deliberate since Ly has gone on record to claim Kassovitz' work as inspiration.

It all happens in a matter of a few hours - the "inciting event" of police violence followed by justifiable outrage in a multi-character storyline that encapsulates the dynamics of a community and how even State authorities have to appeal to the hierarchy of control in order to broker peace. Ly's documentary-style shots allow for gritty realism and even the orchestrated dramatic (potentially violent) moments are strategically and brilliantly hemmed in for the bigger payoff. The heated subject matter leads to an organic implosion that scars everyone around.

The sense of authenticity is unerring because Ly's familiarity with the working-class suburb and the realist's passion he brings to his work. Ly's film is an expansive reenactment of his César-winning short and brings to the fore the misery and deprivation of a ghettoized existence and the police brutality that triggers years of resentment and anger into an uncontrollable act of violence and bloodshed. Gritty Camerawork by Julien Poupard, masterful Editing by Flora Volpeliere and non-invasive background Music by Pink Noise aids the ensuing saga in pulsating with vitality and passion.

It's a gripping experience – one that needs to be seen and experienced by every person in these volatile times. The film indirectly opens our eyes to the disruptive value of neglect and discontent and exposes high-risk fault-lines in minority community management that are best avoided. The film is, in fact, a rousing statement against the oppression of any form and makes it clear that such state empowered terror acts will indeed have a far-reaching destructive impact.

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First Published: 13 March, 2020 11:37 IST

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