‘Les Misérables’ Takes a Powerful Look at Systemic Corruption and Police Brutality
“What does a lion say when it roars?” Just like Victor Hugo’s historic novel, director/co-writer Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables,” France’s 2019 submission to the 91st Academy Awards, explores the fallout of an act of thievery’s potential to enact an uprising. Only, the inciting incident that sets off the intense events of Ly’s frightening cautionary tale finds an alienated young troublemaker, a boy named Issa (Issa Perica), stealing a lion cub from a band of gypsies, instead of a loaf of bread.
Ly’s film first introduces us to a group of young children amid celebrating a recent World Cup win, teenagers running with free-flowing flags up to the Arc de Triomphe. The jubilant images are a bit of a misdirect, however, as the closest thing that “Les Misérables” has to a lead character is idealistic, in-over-his-head policeman, Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), the latest member of the Montfermeil commune’s Street Crimes Unit. Through cop thriller components the audience almost immediately bears witness to heinous actions, seemingly committed on a regular basis, by his new tactical squad, throughout the course of a disastrous day that erupts into chaos.
Being ushered into a corrupt unit of chest pumping, systemic privilege — partnered with one particularly detestable man (Alexis Manenti) who repeatedly abuses his rights — Ruiz is given the neighborhood rundown, his cohorts explaining cheap prostitute prices before harassing a group of young girls waiting at the bus stop, smashing a phone when the girls start filming their behavior.
One of Ruiz’s associates, nicknamed “Pink Pig,” has a work desk littered with vibrant stuffed animals, such as Piglet from “Winnie the Pooh.” The film’s approach to police brutality is far from subtle and grows a bit regurgitative, but is undeniably powerful, effective and prevalent, the armed frat-bros jesting that, “they have a brain on board,” once Ruiz makes some assertions about the nature of their tactics.
When their unit is called to deal with an escalating disturbance, caused by the suspected theft of the soon-to-be infamous lion cub, his superiors agree to track down the animal before communal tensions boil out of their control. The newest member of the team insists that they, “are not animal control,” although their actions sometimes say otherwise. Failing to maintain order over a crowd seems to be one of Ruiz’s squad’s specialties. Keeping watch on local social media accounts in case one of the kidnappers posts any sort of evidence that may implicate them in the feline thievery, things soon take a tragic turn when young Issa captures a horrible accident via drone camera. As the cops scramble to recover the cub, their problems soon grow far more complicated.
Through shaky cam riots, which are never shot too frantically, and foot chases on rooftops and through stairwells, plus some expertly photographed soaring drone footage, “Les Misérables” descends from voyeuristic peer pressure into a frenetic nightmare. Morphing into a gritty police drama a la Michael Mann or Katherine Bigelow, the suburban populace turns to rebellion in order to settle the score with the corrupt law enforcement. In a couple of the film’s most distressing sequences, the realist aspects of the work become heightened by more Hollywood genre influences; the approach completely works, further enveloping the viewer in a political resistance between the cops, criminals, and ordinary citizens.
Exploring the impact of contemporary technology’s potential to strengthen and batter the crooked reach of men in power, trickling down on children clutching their phones which have drone access, whilst simultaneously enabling the predatory methods solicited by law enforcement, “Les Misérables” is a deft examination of alienation, bullying, and the cost of amoral behavior’s impact on the larger structure of society. Whether it is drone cameras or police car windows inspiring peeping Tom behavior, when the power and gratification of something that can be held in your hand, which has the capacity to end someone’s life, makes you feel untouchable, Ly’s film asks at what point does extreme behavior turn the acceptance of such everyday standards into a universal crime that affects the core of an entire nation. It’s a powerful text rooted in the past and present, reminding us that our actions hold some aspect of responsibility towards shaping the future.
“Les Misérables” opens Jan. 10 in select theaters.