With a title that borrows from the legendary cultural icon by Victor Hugo, the film is oppressively scaled yet never seems to go quite deep enough.
We cannot doubt director Ladj Ly’s capability- for his first narrative film, Ly incorporates thoughtful determination and cool visual treatment- thoroughly modern and obsessively detailed with sky-high views of urban Paris, intimate interiors, and engaging long shots, some lasting minutes. It is honest filmmaking, merging “found” footage from a drone to cell phone cameras to hand-held video recorders.
The story follows a new police recruit in a neighborhood with an established dialogue between sides of residents and police. We see, in real time, the exploration of racism internalized, the gray areas of policy and morality. It’s a story that sits on the fringe of protocol and self-control, as police invade and evade personal space. The story follows a few crimes, some serious, some invented, and how the populace of a community interacts around them. A missing circus lion drives a principle storyline, but within it, Ly tries to address a myriad of societal challenges. Ultimately, it is overwhelming from all perspectives. It all culminates in a hardened criminal leading a rebellion within the community.
The distinct approaches of the three police officers represent the modern state of France: diverse, patriotic, and diplomatic. Ultimately, we see diplomacy win out.
The second storyline involves the challenge of modern technology and antiquated law. Particularly with the drone-recorded injury of a young black boy. Here we are again on the fringe of judgment and interpretation, forcing the hand of the police.
Another ideas that is explored to some effect is the mayor of the city being is brought down amid trying to protect his constituents. It shows the effect of misinformation and the power of overwhelming and being overwhelmed. We never see ideas explored to completion, instead we receive incidental glances at many distinct ideas, all of which feel present and urgent.
It’s a story that explores the problems around assimilation gone wrong, state policy not relevant to the reality, and how brutality breeds discontent.
Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is in theaters January 10, 2020 and is distributed by Amazon Films.