An urgently relevant and empathetic look at the cycles of police violence.
Les Misérables takes little in terms of plot from the Victor Hugo novel which is its namesake. Rather, it can be seen as a modern take on several of the novel’s themes – disempowerment; the corruption of authority; and the sum of these leading to a grisly rebellion. The film follows Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), Chris (Alexis Manenti), and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) – three police officers working for the anti-crime squad – as they patrol Monterfiel, an impoverished suburb of Paris. Over a period of two days, it documents the various factions within the community, their interactions with the police and each other, and the corruption and brutality which appear to be commonplace.
On the surface, it would be easy to see this film as a damning portrayal of the police in France and, given the light which is currently being shone on police brutality, police the world over. However, this would be an uncharitable reading. As stated by the director, Ladj Ly, the idea of this film was never to side against the police. Rather, it was intended to be even-handed, to show that “everyone is Les Misérables”. This is what lends the film a lot of its force. It is incredibly sympathetic to its characters, which gives them real nuance and authenticity. This is achieved through a brilliantly crafted script, as well as stellar performances from the cast – some of whom are not professional actors but are from Monterfiel itself.
A lot of the interactions centre around a struggle for power and respect. Chris, for example, appears to portray everything that is typically associated with machismo and power – he regularly directs scathing remarks towards his coworkers, and in most of his interactions, he can be seen attempting to bully those around him. This character could easily have become unidimensional. However, Alexis Manenti’s vivid portrayal expertly avoids this — instead, his cutting jokes and physical aggression are often undercut by a look of almost imperceptible uncertainty and vulnerability. It is a brilliantly portrayed example of how aggression can replace vulnerability, where vulnerability is not tolerated. Similarly, we see Gwada, having remained stony-faced through his complicity in several acts of brutality, quietly crying when he returns home. Although these men are certainly not good people, the film exhibits how their environment; social context; and the power bestowed upon them have all contributed to the creation of the indurated individuals they have become. As the film aptly quotes from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, “there are no bad men or plants, only bad cultivators”.
Where Chris and Gwada are the end products, the film shows the process of creation through Issa (Issa Perica). It documents his journey from a mischievous boy holding a lion cub, to a steely teenager holding a Molotov cocktail. In the first two acts, we see his virtuousness and innocence juxtaposed with his brutalisation. In the third, we see the result. One of the most palpably terrifying scenes I have ever witnessed shows Issa being held in a lion’s cage as punishment for stealing a cub belonging to local travellers – the music, violently jangling camera, and intense performances all contribute to the atmosphere of insanity in which Issa helplessly finds himself. Another harrowing scene shows Issa, after a traumatic day, breaking down and crying as Chris, in a final act of humiliation, bullies him into promising not to tell anyone that the police fired a flash ball at his face. You can almost feel the spittle. As an audience member, you are left desperately wanting to give Issa a hug. Although a hug in this context might seem like a plaster on a missing limb, what is explicit in the film is how important a little bit of tenderness can be (probably alongside some fairly major policy change).
All of this expertly pushes forward the central point of the film. It shifts the onus from the individual to the systems themselves. It never tries to excuse the actions of its characters — the police officers, in particular, are often hard to either like or respect — but it does offer some explanation. It seems to say that, unless you have some deep goodness, if you are just a neutral person, you might act like this too. It drives home the necessity to change culture and policy, rather than to treat individuals who are embroiled in systems and social contexts as the root problem.
Aside from the script and performances, Julien Poupard’s cinematography is well worth mentioning. It consists of a mixture of drone footage and handheld camerawork. Some of the shots are strikingly beautiful, whilst still never being at odds with the mood of the film. In fact, the cinematography is crucial to maintaining the sometimes eerie, often intense, mood. The opening scene, for example, includes footage of jubilant celebrations at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, set against the backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe. It is acutely effective. Close-ups of faces roaring in celebration contrasted with wide-angle shots of tightly packed bodies ramming against each other creates a powerful opening scene which cleanly merges joy and threat. This attention to detail is maintained throughout and shrewdly compliments the script.
Enjoyable is far from the word I would use to describe the experience of watching Les Misérables – interesting, important, effective, and impactful, all might be more apt – but I would definitely encourage everyone to go and see it, if not for an enjoyable jaunt, then certainly for a brilliantly crafted perspective on some incredibly relevant issues.