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Review: Les miserables (2019)

Les miserables (2019)

Directed by: Ladj Ly | 105 minutes | crime, drama | Actors: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almamy Kanouté, Nizar Ben Fatma, Raymond Lopez, Luciano Lopez, Jaihson Lopez, Jeanne Balibar, Sana Joachaim, Lucas Omiri, Rocco Lopez, Diego Lopez, Omar Soumare

It is both a statement and a title. Anyone who, as a French director, baptizes his film ‘Les misérables’ inevitably refers to Victor Hugo’s classic outcast drama from 1862. In this 21-century ‘Les misérables’ we are introduced to contemporary outcasts: hopeless Africans (from above and below the Sahara). of the Parisian banlieu Montfermeil. They form the center of a gloomy arthouse gem.

In ‘Les misérables’ we experience the baptism of fire of Brigadier Stéphane ‘Fatkuif’ Ruiz, agent of the Brigade Anti-Criminalité (BAC). He has been transferred from Cherbourg to Montfermeil, where he is shown the way by the experienced agent Chris and the agent Gwada from Montfermeil. During those first days, Stéphane has to deal with angry gypsies, a stolen lion, an unfortunate rubber bullet and a vengeful youth.

Although anything but innovative, the scenario of ‘Les misérables’ is formidable in its execution. In the first half hour we get acquainted with the district, which most resembles an old-fashioned working-class neighbourhood. The handling is raw but not unfriendly, there is a dynamic that just seems to be working on it. Cops gain just enough respect, local bosses and religious auxiliaries keep their fellow residents in check, and the residents themselves try to make the best of it. There is a status quo, but it is extremely fragile. Especially at temperatures above thirty degrees.

The portrayal of life in this French ghetto is realistic, penetrating and original. Also intriguing, because as a viewer you don’t always realize what is happening. Is streetwise Chris kidding his new colleague or not? Why does that circus car (with loudspeaker) drive through the streets cursing and ranting? And who is the mysterious Salah? Shot in documentary style and spiced up with some nice humor (certainly in the beginning) this ensures that the viewer stays focused.

In the end it becomes clear where ‘Les misérables’ wants to go. The makers do not see the inhabitants as inherently good or bad, but as victims of a system that does not work. You can safely count the police officers among those victims, who do their job to the best of their ability. Thus ‘Les misérables’ tells a story as old as humanity itself. A story about outcasts, about inequality and about injustice. A story to which Victor Hugo would undoubtedly have given his blessing. Although we don’t really like a musical version.

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