“Les Misérables” (France)
Directed by Ladj Ly
I should point out right off the top that this film bears no resemblance to the period musical of the same name. I mention that not as a spoiler, but to avoid the possible embarrassment of bringing your grandma to a film which features scenes of very realistic violence which are not followed by a hummable tune. No, more “Training Day” than Broadway, director Ladj Ly’s brilliant “Les Misérables” takes a very old formula and places it squarely in the now…well, 2005, to be exact. Beautiful, riveting and focused, this “Les Miz” paints a chilling and, one imagines, accurate portrait of how race, religion and economic inequity forced the ebb and flow of power dynamics in Victor Hugo’s home neighborhood of Montfermeil – or, more specifically, the slums within known as “les Bosquets,” and the riots of that year.
Taking place over the course of 36 hours, the brilliance of Ly’s script (and co-writer Gordano Gederlini), stems from his ability to tell his story with almost a dozen main characters in a way that is never confusing. In fact, their dialogue is so perfect (and often quite funny), I can’t recall even one misspoken or disingenuous line. However, Ly (making his feature debut after a strong career of directing docs) is not at all afraid to confound us in our attempt to ascertain who the “good” guy is. But that is the point – there is something much bigger going on here than a simple morality tale. This is a taut lesson, regardless of when the film takes place, in the relational dynamics of those living on top of each other, in the many ways in which religion, race and history create the assumptions that cause conflict, and in the shifting tides of authority that exist as a result. And while the above description might scare you in to thinking this will be a massive tome of a film, it clocks in at just under 100 minutes and features an ending that is as breathtaking as it is sudden. In short, the film was not only one of the two or three best films at this year’s Chicago Film Festival, it is also, I believe, a foregone conclusion to be amongst the five nominated films for the International Oscar in February.
Of course, Ly has some incredible partners to work with…his actors. Topping the list is our protagonist, Damien Bonnard. Acting as our eyes and ears for most of the film – until he is dragged in to the proceedings – Bonnard is quiet, caring and hypnotic. Alexis Mananti is equal parts amusing and terrifying, but never wavers in his character’s resolve and misplaced confidence. A young boy named Issa Perica is tasked with carrying much of the freight when it comes to plot and he does so with none of the obvious marks of an amateur that often plague a young actor in a role this important. Special mention goes to Almamy Kanoute, a shopkeeper and cleric in the film, who is electric during his short time on screen, and the young Al-Hassan Ly, who plays a teen whose tech obsession causes him to be an accidental witness to a seminal and powder-keg event.
Shot by Julien Poupard in realistic color with many hand-held and fast-moving shots, we very rarely see any framing beyond that which is occurring immediately in front of Donnard’s Brigadier Ruiz. The effect is a mix of claustrophobia and confusion. Like Ruiz, we are newcomers to this world…a world where everyone else knows every alleyway, street, market and rooftop. And when you’re never sure who is friend or foe, the effect of that is very powerful…especially as there is no specific film music that I can recall. Instead the film relies solely on the background sounds of the street; music, language, vehicles, animals, weapons. This mashing of noise comes across as a pulsating and thrilling original score, like you might hear in a war documentary. And, it follows that special mention should be given to both the film’s editor, Flora Volpeliore, and the location supervisor, whose name I cannot find, so let’s credit both director Ly and, of course, the people of les Bosquets.
This is a tremendous film and should not be missed.