Cannes 2019: Les Misérables
There’s a magnesium flash of brilliance towards the end of Les Misérables – it’s so blinding that it almost eclipses everything that came before it. In a 10-15-minute sequence, director Ladj Ly orchestrates a stunningly brutal, claustrophobic, and evocative riot sequence through a flight of stairs in a French tenement block. It’s the set-piece through which the disparate pieces in a clumsy, mostly misguided jigsaw puzzle come together to make a point: that martyrs are often made by the people most opposed to them. A trite point, for sure, but one efficiently demonstrated and convincing.
But before that, we have to get through the rest. The plot concerns Pento (Damien Bonnard), newly recruited to the San Denis Anti-Crime Brigade. He’s assigned on duty with Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), partners who have made their living off making dodgy deals and terrorising the local community into submission. Pento is shocked by the inhuman treatment he witnesses and struggles to come to terms with the physical and emotional violence inflicted onto the residents.
So far, so good, but to demonstrate how martyrs are made, Ly needs to create a situation where Pento, Chris and Gwada motivate some sort of understandable rebellion. This doesn’t need to be excessively complex – in fact, the film would just need to demonstrate them abusing the locals to a breaking point, with one in particular serving as a ringleader. As it turns out, we do get the ringleader part – Ly’s solution to this dilemma is to weave a ridiculous, laughable tale about a kid stealing a lion cub (yes, that’s right, a fucking lion cub) from a violent circus owner who threatens to tear the local community apart. We are supposed to believe that this whole thing is captured in pristine HD by a top-quality drone that an impoverished child somehow owns and manages to fly around a vast area of Paris. We are supposed to believe that, shortly after the drone is smashed to pieces, it somehow resurrects and can be used again to frame the final scene.
The amount of unintentional laughter at the screening I attended is enough to make this an Oscar contender. Don’t get me wrong, there are attempts at joking – especially in the first act – although the jokes aren’t in any way funny. When the film attempts to get serious, however, it just makes a mockery of itself. The expressions, dialogue, and situations in Les Misérables would seem more at home in a broad comedy – hence, the audience laughs as if it is a broad comedy. The fact that it’s trying to be some comment on French race relations, though, somewhat detracts from this. It’s impossible to make a hard-hitting film about the theft of a baby lion cub. When the owner of the lion drags the boy responsible into the lion cage and holds it in front of the roaring beast, we’re supposed to feel scared or sad (or both), but it’s just laughable. This is the filmic equivalent of the latter half of Twin Peaks’ second season.
Treading on more sensitive ground, this film also felt to me to be in severe danger of sympathising with domestic terrorists. To suggest that the widespread violence that presumably exists after the credits close is in any way justified would be a misstep. I would like to say that the film maintains a neutral standpoint, but a quote that appears briefly before the credits roll sets it out loud and clear: these people weren’t ‘bad’, they were made ‘bad’ by the police force. It therefore seems more likely than not that Ly intends to explain and at least somewhat justify what will presumably lead to several deaths.
Still, I make Les Misérables sound more provocative than it is – I don’t think it’d be too hard to convince me that the film doesn’t justify its protagonists actions. We all know that abusive regimes breed hate and sow the seeds for revolution – Ladj Ly simply tells us this again, although this time in a suburb of France where racial tensions are particularly high. That relevance means that the film is likely to do pretty well, and pick up some buzz as it goes – but in a couple of years we’ll all have forgotten it.