Concepts of solidarity and team spirit are at the forefront of “Les Misérables,” the debut feature from French director Ladj Ly. It is the charge given to the anti-crime squad which patrols the Parisian suburb at the center of the story and also reflects the jubilant scenes of World Cup-winning celebrations opening the film. But this metaphorical “melting pot” proves to be more akin to a pressure cooker, as simmering tensions explode in this intense cop drama.
Stéphane (played by Damien Bonnard) is our entry point into this world, as a new recruit tasked with maintaining law and order as part of a small team of police offers. Unfamiliar to the fraught relationships within the diverse community and between them and the police force, he gets a rude awakening as he witnesses his colleagues’ unscrupulous practices during a routine patrol. Before long, an arrest goes awry, forcing Stéphane to reckon with his allegiance to a group wielding oppressive tactics against people whose backgrounds aren’t far removed from his own.
Indeed, Ladj Ly blurs the lines between hero and antagonist as he keenly investigates the “us vs. them” mentality that plagues modern societies. Though Stéphane’s is the primary perspective, the narrative efficiently introduces us to the racially and religiously diverse residents while also presenting the anti-immigrant views of anti-crime squad’s white leader. As such, the tensions are always simmering under the surface, aided by an intimate filmmaking style that feels as immediate as real time and as authentic as documentary.
The film’s dynamic visuals eventually become integral to the film’s themes as those tensions escalate to riotous effect during the investigation of an absurdist theft involving rival “gypsies” and black Muslims. Interweaving Stéphane’s street level perspective with bird’s eye views courtesy of a drone operated by a young black boy, the narrative is enriched in ways which bear striking similarities to the documented instances of police brutality underlying the Black Lives Matter movement. And as the plot unfolds in the aftermath, it serves as a resonant reminder of the painful silences, sacrifices and compromises to maintain an illusion of peace in an unjust world.
Like the classic Victor Hugo novel of the same name, “Les Misérables” potently examines class struggle and social justice through a contemporary lens. As such, its varied perspectives sometimes feel unduly sympathetic towards the oppressive powers represented by the crime squad. However, Ly’s crafts this rage-filled film with enough critical honesty and nuance to justify its powerful cliffhanger conclusion. It begs the question, where do we go from here?