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Film review: Les Misérables

Film & TV

Award-winning new French film Les Misérables drops viewers into the poor and rough Parisian community of Montfermeil, a Parisian district where the police are as likely as the residents to see defeat at every turn.

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An abiding question is whether anything might change for the better in this community. Is that a forlorn hope?

Victor Hugo set his famous novel of the same name in Montfermeil, so echoes of the misfortune and injustice depicted in that story might be expected when police officer Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) joins the local Anti-Crime Squad patrolling there. Working with team members Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), he is the junior member, the apprentice, and the outsider; all in one. He is also a pair of fresh eyes.

Filmmaker Ladj Ly previously portrayed the Paris street riots of 2005, and the threat of a similar eruption pervades this story. Montfermeil is corrupt and riven, always seemingly on the brink of conflict. That brooding volatility inhabits just about every exchange between the police and the residents, and between the rival gangs. The last are predominantly associated with different migrant groups whose people reside in the austere apartment blocks.

The many children living there are in the thick of street activities. A young boy, Issa (played by Issa Perica), is central among them and is the key in two incidents that bring tensions to a head. A clash between the police unit and kids is recorded by a drone; evidence that threatens to destroy cohesion between the policemen if not located. The other, related event (no spoiler permitted) is a theft that could bring competing clans to violence.

As if those two breaches were not enough, worse lies ahead that the police officers might not be able to contain.

A strong thread of machismo underlies the key characterisations and the driving plot elements. Female roles are few, as Ly principally concerns himself with what it takes for men and boys to be tough in this desperate neighbourhood. That might turn off a segment of the audience. At the least, it begs the question: What other story might be told to complement this gendered take.

Les Misérables offers some worthwhile character acting but there are lapses; a little dullness in performance. Perhaps the actors were asked to seem jaded, as one might be if having to contend with the apparent intractability of their subjects’ social predicaments.

Ly grew up in Montfermeil and still lives there. He says that it is too easy to forget that the people in the area have complex lives, with good and bad in everyone, including the police (who often also live there). The film, based on Ly’s observations of actual events, is a commentary on difficult and real-life circumstances; what both divides and unites those who call the neighbourhood home.

Les Misérables did win Best Feature at the 2020 Cesars and the Jury Prize at Cannes, and was an Oscar nominee for Best International Feature Film this year.

Les Misérables is screening in Adelaide at Palace Nova Prospect.

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