Losing out to Bong Joon-ho’s awards darling Parasite in the Best International Feature Film category at the 92nd Academy Awards, Ladj Ly’s explosive crime drama Les Misérables would’ve been the winner any other year. A contemporary urban drama in the vein of La Haine – and confusingly not another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s celebrated text from which it takes its title – the film is a timely and powerful social chronicle set in the commune of Montfermeil, Paris.
Based on a real-life occurrence of police violence in Paris in 2008 (observed and filmed by Les Misérables’ director Ly), this racially-charged drama studies the hostility and unrest between police and civilians in a warring estate. Incendiary and chaotic, the film slowly builds to a thrilling climactic boiling point that shocks and upsets in equal measure, but it is the film’s authentic and astutely observed build-up that feels the most potent. The film is, at its core, a study of societal collapse and the incredibly violent results that often follow. With a pulsing score from Pink Noise, the film’s slowly increasing tension is patiently executed and not rushed like many other thrillers fall victim to, meaning the film’s final act feels earned.
Beginning with a celebratory opening sequence of unity and joviality set in the aftermath of France’s World Cup win in 2018 and ending with harrowing violence, the film presents a stark statement on the situation in places like Montfermeil, where tensions are so high. The opening of the film is how things should be – togetherness, unity, joy, pride. The ending is where things are going – complete and utter social decay. Ending the film on a powerful quote from Victor Hugo, the film’s final message is certainly a little heavy-handed. That criticism can frankly be applied to the film as whole. But situations like this often require a blunt approach to make people notice how bad it is getting, and hopefully, change for the better.
It’s no wonder the film is often compared to La Haine, but this comparison can be a blessing and a curse. While any film would be grateful to be in the 1995 classic’s company, Les Misérables pales in comparison considerably. It will certainly not have the lasting effect that La Haine continues to endure. But for now, in such a historic and divided year, Les Misérables is a disquieting tour de force, and an urgent study of injustice. Timely and thought-provoking, it offers no easy answers to the complex questions it asks – and therein lies its power.