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In Les Misérables, the Song Remains the Same

No, it's not that beloved musical, but director Ladj Ly's Oscar-nominated look at police violence nevertheless feels familiar.

SRAB Films, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Emmett Till’s mother thought that if we saw pictures of her son’s corpse we’d be galvanized into action. She could not have foreseen the surveillance hall of mirrors in which we now find ourselves: Seemingly every week there’s some new document (shaky cellphone play-by-play, suspiciously edited body-cam footage) of this society’s violence upon the black body, so commonplace now it often doesn’t even achieve virality. Are we numb or tired of being told what we already know?

Director Ladj Ly’s confident debut film, Les Misérables, spends much of its energy on what precedes a moment of violence caught on camera—in this case, drone footage of the police in a French suburb shooting (accidentally?) a child. But gratifyingly, the movie also gives us catharsis, something that eludes me when these real-life videos emerge, in showing us the episode’s aftermath. That’s not to suggest the movie gives us answers—about power, or oppression, or the racism and xenophobia that increasingly seem to define the world’s democracies. But that’s too much to expect of an entertainment, even a French one.

The movie opens with some visual poetry: the boys of the banlieue off to Paris to watch a soccer match in a crowd of their countrymen. It’s an arresting sequence, composed shots of the riot of humanity (peaceful, but you know something’s coming) and all the landmarks that are synecdoche for that great city. Ly was born in Mali and raised in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, where Les Misérables takes place. There’s a delight in seeing the place as one of its sons does.

Ly’s camera (the cinematography is by Julien Poupard) shows us the people—wiseacre teen girls, devout bearded men, groups of boys at play—as heroes. It finds beauty in the poorly maintained housing projects and trash-strewn sprawl. You might call these the slums, but the film is not slumming. The drone itself is a player in this work, and an overhead shot of a ragtag outdoor bazaar reveals the place’s startling geometry.

After its impressionistic preamble, Les Misérables settles into the kind of police procedural we’ve seen a thousand times. We meet a cop, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), on his first day on the job as part of the street crime unit, whose mandate seems to be to roll around the suburbs in a gray Renault and look out for trouble. He’s teamed up with the loudmouthed Chris (Alexis Manenti) and the comparatively laid-back Gwada (the preposterously handsome Djibril Zonga).

The trio doesn’t have to look for long. A band of hotheaded Roma from the local circus confronts the district’s mayor, claiming a black boy (that’s … not the word they use) has abducted a lion cub. The scene is electric. The writers (Ly, Manenti, and Giordano Gederlini) were inspired by the Parisian riots of 2005, and though the chaos is obviously choreographed, the violence feels documentary—a band of white bodies and a band of black bodies destined to collide.

Stéphane is a classic neophyte character, the eyes through which we are introduced to this place and its players: the corrupt mayor, the dudes from the local mosque, the horny teen who uses his drone to spy on his neighbors, the criminal who’s found Allah and gone straight, various local toughs. These are types, but meaty ones; all the performers seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. If there’s no real nuance in these depictions, that’s because this is a morality play, almost a fable. Do you root for the little pigs or the big bad wolf?

The cops find the lion cub, but in pursuit, they shoot the culprit, Issa (Issa Perica). Does it complicate matters that it’s Gwada, the black cop, the local boy made good, who pulls the trigger? I don’t know that it does. Gwada uses a Flash-Ball gun—imagine the copywriter who came up with the term “less-lethal weapon”—so while Issa isn’t dead, a mistake has most certainly been made. The cops know they’ve been caught on camera and, having solved the mystery of the stolen lion, set out to find out who in the neighborhood has a drone, dragging the injured boy along with them.

Stéphane knows they’ve done something wrong. Chris feels it’s immaterial, their right as the police. Gwada is mostly inscrutable, though there’s a lovely moment when he sees his mother and begins to cry. The scenes where the cops reckon with their actions drag—I checked my watch—but they do so by design.

Victor Hugo’s novel is not source material so much as touchstone. In that work, students erect barricades in the streets of Paris, an abortive attempt at revolution. The violence we’re anticipating throughout the film finally arrives—a band of boys attacks the police—and it feels bigger than revenge. Ly’s violence is random, messy, improvised, animal. It’s abrupt, and perfect.

The ringleader is Issa, his face disfigured, his body dignified. Perica, who has very few lines, is an extraordinary presence on camera, charismatic in his reticence—I thought of Dillon Freasier, whose sole film credit is as the deaf child in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. I wish the director hadn’t concluded the film with a quote from Hugo: “There are no bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators.” We get it. He might as well have cited N.W.A.: Fuck la police.