Sunday, December 22, 2019

Movie with Abe: Les Misérables

Les Misérables
Directed by Ladj Ly
To Be Released January 10, 2020

A title can set expectations for a film, or at least color what the audience may take away from the experience that wouldn’t otherwise be part of it. Some films and television shows have famously been marketed with poor or problematic titles, either because they’re not accurate in describing the content or because they’re simply too long, like “Cougar Town” or “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” And then there are times when the title is selected to purposely reference a known work and transport audience members to a certain mindset that offers considerable additional commentary and context for what they are watching.

Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) arrives in the suburb Montfermeil in Paris to join the anti-crime squad, which includes Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and leader Chris (Alexis Manenti), who embraces the nickname of “Pink Pig” that he has been given by kids in the neighborhood. As they patrol the streets, Stéphane begins to see problematic behavior from his colleagues as they use force and intimidation to keep those who haven’t necessarily done anything wrong in line. When the violent members of a traveling circus discover that their prized lion cub has been taken, the squad sets out to find the thief and return the cub before things truly get out of control, an inevitability that they won’t be able to prevent and instead only serve to fuel.

Early on in the film, Stéphane correctly identifies Montfermeil as a key location in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel that shares the title of this project. That comparison is not lost in this modern-day take on the disparity between the police who have all the power and the people whose rights are far from secure. Yet there’s just as much complexity to be found and analyzed, particularly as the target of the squad’s pursuit, a young boy named Issa (Issa Perica), expresses no remorse for any of his crimes, and his community moves to instinctively protect him, fully aware that he may have done something wrong.

This is a deeply relevant film for today, one that examines ideas of police brutality, criminal consequences, and poverty. Coming from a country like France paints a very different picture than in the United States, where the same issues are prevalent. Seeing it in a removed setting demonstrates the similarities that exist while maintaining a distinctly French perspective. The performances from the adult and child actors are very strong, and the cinematography by Julien Poupard manages to convey the gradual escalation to chaos that anchors some of the film’s best scenes. This may not be as revolutionary as the novel that shares its name, but it does offer a blistering and enthralling critique of society as it currently stands.


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