WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A cop of provinces moves Paris to join the Anti-Crime Brigade of Montfermeil, discovering an underworld where the tensions between the different groups mark the rhythm.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Les Misérables is not an easy film to watch. Raw, in its presentation of a broken society, it does not dress up its themes with the frill of a cinematic lens. As a French film, do not expect a fatalistic romantic veneer drafted by a poetic hand about the injustices of the world - the hand that created this film is instead one that knows what hard labour is, holding no punches as it batters the audience with rage - and clearly the audience loves it. It won the Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and has been nominated for this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film as France’s submission.
In a South African context, Les Misérables mirrors the unrest felt in our downtrodden communities and the youthful resentment that builds up when a society has abandoned them.
The film was inspired by France’s 2005 riots when marginalised urban youth rose up against unemployment and police violence after the death of two youths who hid from police interrogation. In this version, an anti-crime brigade finds themselves overwhelmed by rising resentment after an arrest goes horribly wrong, fuelling boiling tensions.
The director of the film - Ladj Ly - was born in Mali before his family relocated them to France. His previous repertoire includes documentary filmmaking, and that’s the core style of his first feature. The characters and societal tensions of the film is clearly written from lived experiences, and that raw energy can make you very uncomfortable - especially from the perspective of privilege.
It also explores the nihilistic worldview of a police force that has lost sight of what they’re supposed to be doing. One of them is still trying to ensure fairness is meted out to all, driven by a compassion for those he tries to protect, but in the face of his colleagues’ wilful neglect of their duties, he himself loses hope in a system never really designed to help the poor. Resentment brews on both sides, and it only takes one misdeed too many to tip the scale into chaos.
As for the performance, the director has a strong, guiding hand on the cast, stoking a universal hatred in their performance that reaches its climax when the youth have had enough of the inaction of their elders. South Africans can definitely relate to this generational conflict - just think about the Fees Must Fall movement and the gender-based violence protests - and that sums up the core plot of Les Misérables. The younger generations clearly have had enough.
But it’s not a film to watch casually on a night out with friends or a date - Les Misérables is not about immersing yourself in the joy of cinematic bliss. You have to go see it with intention, a willingness to understand the anatomy of society’s festering wounds, all while sitting uncomfortably in your seat of privilege. And if you’re part of the older generations, that seat can get pretty hot.