Les Misérables: Review. By Alif Majeed.
As Les Misérables begins, the camera follows a group of kids celebrating the French team’s victory in the 2018 world cup. As they swim, scram, and jump in joy through a swarm of people to their way to the Champs-Élysées, they are celebrating with seemingly everybody in Paris. That moment of tremendous joy is so great at encapsulating everything that comes later when things go up in flames. As if the director, Ladj Ly, wanted to show how all the jubilation is just a façade that will give away once the euphoria is over and everybody goes about the regular lives and places in the hierarchy of things.
The movie then shifts focus on a group of characters in Montfermeil, which, as one character stresses, is a significant setting in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, as if foreshadowing that nothing has changed after all those years.
As the movie characters are being introduced, a gang of circus artists causes a stir in the neighbourhood as their lion cub has gone missing. Accusing the local gang of the theft, they threaten everyone with dire consequences, forcing three local cops who happen to be there to intervene at the local godfather figure’s, fittingly nicknamed The Mayor, behest. Suspicion quickly falls on Issa, well known in the neighbourhood for his penchant for stealing and generally causing trouble. They promptly catch Issa among a group of his agitated friends, who decide to intervene. As the kids get more defiant and hostile, one of the cops shoots Issa in the face with a flash-ball in a moment of panic.
The whole scene is recorded accidentally with a drone camera by Buzz, a resident voyeur. Thus, a mad scramble ensues to find the boy and the footage, with each group joining the hunt for the footage to use it for their vested interests.
Les Misérables is a movie about that says a lot about choices and actions. A character is quick to harshly judge a man for pulling the trigger in a heated moment of madness. But when faced with the same choice in a much more pressure-cooked situation, it looks like he would have to make that tough choice himself.
Each characters’ actions also make logical sense in their own wrapped way, right down to the guy who is willing to throw another person into a lions cage to teach him some life lessons.
The children’s plight at the centre of the piece is rather tragic, and you feel for them. As the hunt, first for Issa and then for Buzz, goes on, they are treated almost like disposable items by the adults around them. Like Buzz’s beloved drone camera. They have gotten so cynical about their lives because of how everyone treats them, which they seemingly cannot possibly escape. Causing them to choose to do whatever suits them the most to escape their humdrum existence or even as an act of defiance, including recording girls changing or stealing lion cubs as they have nothing better to do.
It makes it fitting when the kids take that last stand when they have had enough with their disappointment at their treatment at the hands of adults who they wish or perhaps even hope knew better. Even the cops have got cynical and jaded and have come to believe there is no point in trying to help any of them unless there are personal stakes for them.
The movie does a strange tempo and rhythm, taking its own sweet time to establish the movie’s characters and settings. But as it builds up to a tremendous crescendo, it becomes nerve-wracking trying to figure out who will get the video and whose fortunes would oscillate and change. It again loses steam a little bit after the footage angle is resolved, and the characters go back to their everyday life.
But this did not bother me as it feels like it played out exactly as it would have in real-time. With long lazy stretches of boredom before someone’s action has a snowball effect that quickly escalates and spells disaster for everyone involved. Only for things goes back to normal once the situation is diffused.
But all that gets tidied away by that brilliant and breath-taking climax as the final confrontation takes place in the dingy apartment complex. And characters are finally made to make some tough choices. When the row, which was boiling over waiting to explode throughout the movie, finally happens, you understand and empathize with everything that has lead to that point.
What is depicted here is is not the Paris of Midnight in Paris or countless other romanticized Paris travelogue movies. The version that tourists to Paris never get to see or even hope they never encounter least the city’s magic gets lost to them. Guess that is the very point Ly was trying to make in trying to force us not to look away.
It is a pity that Les Misérables had to get caught in the Parasite wave. Every year plenty of movies are quickly swept under the rug because one movie got all the attention and rode the wave to glory. Last year the eyeballs were grabbed by Parasite and deservedly so. But Les Misérables is a movie that demands your attention. It is a powerful movie that is not afraid of looking ugly, and therein lies what makes it unique.
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