“Les Misérables” – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” – Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
Quoting – or to be more precise, partially-quoting – Dickens to kick off a “Les Misérables” movie review might be brazen, foolish and a bit sacrilegious, but after watching director Ladj Ly’s gutsy, modern take on Victor Hugo’s celebrated novel, it also feels apropos.
For Issa (Issa Perica), a young Parisian teen, life is the best of times and also the worst. France just won the 2018 World Cup, and the nation celebrates! In Paris, Parisians are dizzy and giddy with pure unsullied bliss. Issa, his friends and thousands and thousands of smiling locals rush the streets, surround cafes, gather at Jardins du Trocadero with the Eiffel Tower proudly fixed in the background, and flood Champs-Élysées with the equally famous Arc de Triomphe that offers a striking spectacle of superb salutations.
Ly’s camera captures white faces, brown faces and every shade in between in the massive crowds and intimate close-ups of this positive, carnival-like atmosphere, as the city’s citizens toss aside any and all physical, monetary, cultural barriers and embrace one another.
Although the enjoyable World Cup hangover will last for years and years, reality also arrives the very next day after the big win. Issa lives in Les Bosquets, a struggling, neglected suburb east of Paris, where cracked concrete, broken windows and kilometers of graffiti are the most notable elements of the landscape, and he frequently embraces trouble, including theft. Most recently, Issa inexplicably steals a bag of hens, which naturally triggers a trip to the police station.
A bag of hens?
Issa’s continued mischief will also, unfortunately, fall into the collective purview of police officers Stephane (Damien Bonnard), Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga). It’s Stephane’s (Damien Bonnard) first day on the city’s anti-crime task force, and he’s paired with Chris and Gwada, who have patrolled these streets for about 10 years.
Hardened and bitter, Chris fears no repercussions for bullying the folks in Les Bosquets, including taunting a 15-year-old girl at a bus stop and smashing her friend’s phone to bits. And Gwada? Well, he’s – figuratively and literally – just going along for the ride and is complicit with his silence.
Certainly, Ly’s film channels obvious parallels to Hugo’s original work, including the prime location, a police manhunt (or in this case, a boyhunt) and a sincere focus on the underprivileged, but instead of a more traditional telling of “Les Misérables”, it seems like a French grandson of director Dennis Hopper’s “Colors” (1988). Just as Los Angeles police officers Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall) and Danny McGavin (Sean Penn) walk along moral compass edges of South Central Los Angeles in the late 1980s, Chris, Gwana and Stephane march in the grooves of Les Bosquets in 2018.
No, Chris is not throwing bodies into the Catacombs, as they did during the French Revolution (which incidentally is not the timeframe of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”), but he inflicts caustic, twisted logic to keep the peace, which of course, has the opposite effect.
“Les Misérables” is a sobering, present-day crime drama, and it’s not a musical at all. Not at all. Instead, it teases a troubling butterfly effect from one ill-behaved action, and along the way, Ly – who grew up in Les Bosquets – introduces several struggling, supporting characters with hip names like Buzz, Zorro, Slim, Salah, and the Mayor. They, along with Issa, cope with their trying surroundings and form necessary creeds that are uniquely understood in Les Bosquets and other similar neighborhoods from around the globe.
Hugo understood these principles too.
“People weighed down with troubles do not look back; they know only too well that misfortune stalks them.” – Victor Hugo, “Les Misérables”
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Amazon Studios