Les Misérables (2019)

Dir. Ladj Ly. Starring Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga

The circus is in town, and it is pissed off. The circus van, which had previously meandered around Montfermeil advertising the show, has changed its tune considerably. A slew of profanity seems to both precede and follow the vehicle, all of it in response to the kidnapping of Johnny. Threats are made against whoever has him. The kidnapper and his ancestors will suffer. Ultimately the men, beefy types with bats and sticks and in one case a hatchet, stroll up to the mayor’s office. The ayor (Steve Tientcheu) is black, as are the men who follow him; the men screaming at him are Roma. The circus men scream to get Johnny back, and the mayor’s men, unarmed and incautious, brush up against them, giving insult for insult. It’s hard to know immediately what the tactic is, precisely, for Zorro (Raymond Lopez). Is he leading this charge because he genuinely thinks that the mayor knows where Johnny is? Or is he doing it because he’s hoping that making enough noise will cow the mayor into kicking off a search? In other words, is he posturing or not? He must be. There are people who make crummy decisions in Montfermeil, but none of them are truly irrational. Irrationality is a kind of luxury. Posturing, and the face-saving that goes with it, is an essential tool for the men and boys of the street no matter how old or secure they are. Zorro knows that the first step in making an opponent lose his cool is to suggest to him that he stay cool. The mayor has the truth on his side: he really has no idea where Johnny is, much less who Johnny is. (It comes out somewhere along the line that Johnny is a lion cub. He is very kyewt. This does not make the mayor any less confused.) Ultimately three cops show up, led by Chris, le Cochon Rose (Manenti), one of the movie’s only white people and undoubtedly its crookedest character. He and his partner Gwada (Zonga) are taking newcomer Ruiz (Bonnard) around, and Chris horrifies Ruiz with his disregard for any kind of civility, politeness, or self-reflection. Le loi, c’est lui, something he even says in a crowded restaurant while in the midst of a tantrum. The only way to survive as a cop in Montfermeil, according to Chris, is to never apologize. Never back down. Always act like you’re the toughest person, and never admit a mistake. When all three groups are there together, like water atoms coming to boil inside a tea kettle, the shortcomings of the strategy are clear. Posturing does not get Johnny back, or keep the mayor’s power, or stop Chris from getting drawn and quartered by internal affairs. The movie knows this much about people, but it does not know this much about itself.

The final shots of the movie bring together the critical figures of the police brutality case that Les Misérables centers on, and shows the audience that it has more brawn than brains. There are the cops: Gwana, who shot adolescent cub thief Issa (Issa Perica) in the face with a flashball, and Chris, who has maneuvered unceasingly to ensure that no one will get in trouble for it, and Ruiz, who looked to have singlehandedly staved off disaster until it all proved to be calm before the storm. There’s Issa, who has rallied the other boys of the neighborhood to trap the three cops in an apartment building with a broken elevator. Using fireworks, loaded carts from grocery stores, refuse, and flares, the scores of boys have corralled the three adults between floors. And there’s Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), who might be younger still than Issa, but perhaps it’s just the glasses that do it; he alone of the boys in the banlieue wears specs, and it’s because he’s a nerd. While the other boys play soccer or like, steal lion cubs from the circus, Buzz uses his drone to take videos of girls in neighboring apartment buildings. By chance, his drone was flying over the scene where Issa was shot in the face, and the movie’s tensest moments cover his intended escape with the memory card that he could use to finger the cops. Desperate for help, Ruiz bangs on Buzz’s door (not that he knows it’s Buzz’s door), begging to be let in. Buzz looks out, sees the screeching cop, and locks the door. A standoff ensues between Issa, armed with a Molotov cocktail, and Ruiz, who has drawn his gun. The two stare at each other. Ruiz tries to convince Issa, his eyes dead and his face swollen out of recognition. Of the three cops, only Ruiz has been kind to Issa. He drove with him to the pharmacy, disinfected his wounds, held his head against his breast. Now he stands there, gun raised against the boy he knows has been mistreated by the cops, radicalized to the point of some pretty metal revenge. The boy cannot have forgotten that Ruiz tried to be decent, but the fact that he stands there with Gwana and Chris is proof of moral rot. The camera gives us Issa’s perspective, looking at Ruiz. The camera gives us Ruiz’s perspective, staring up at Issa. And then…a fade to black and a quote from the real Les Misérables about how men are not born bad but are cultivated to become bad. This is not political. This is barely even Sunday School. Better to end with someone slipping on a banana peel or blasting a wet fart than to be unable to make a real choice.

Ly has enough talent to make gripping scenes, to make many bodies seem like they might all explode just from mere proximity. He’s missing out on will. If this is meant to be some kind of high-minded, symbolic choice—the kids on the streets at the throats of an unjust system but unable to exert enough power to destroy it—then add another five minutes to the movie. Issa throws his Molotov cocktail and is arrested by the backup Ruiz called for. Ruiz shoots down a kid and gets to call it self-defense. In refusing to create a definitive ending, Ly has shown that all he has is the ability to posture. His movie refuses to discharge a weapon; when it demands the guts to make a decision it simply hides further in the shadow of Victor Hugo, hoping we’ll make some kind of connection that he might be able to point to as his own. It reminds me of the ending of The Butter Battle Book, where the two sides stand poised on a wall prepared to obliterate one another but too nervous to make the first movie. The shared ending between the two shows that it’s best to see Les Misérables as another work for children.

Les Misérables casts a great many characters in a short amount of time, and for better or worse what it reminded me of most was Crash in its quest to replace depth for breadth, to hope that we’ll be so sucked into the many characters that we don’t credibly demand to find out what moves them. The web of people is significantly tighter in Les Misérables, and to its credit, its stereotypes are less aggressively calculated than the bong rip social experiment going down in Crash. (Never forget that Paul Haggis started thinking about writing Crash because he thought no one was talking about racism in Los Angeles. Ly, on the hand, is from Montfermeil, and represents the barely caged anarchy of the neighborhood well. There’s a lot to criticize in this movie, but at no point did I ever think that the place seemed fake.)  The cops are all lost causes as far as characterization goes. No minute-long clip of each one at home interacting with his family is enough to make them into people. Ruiz is newbie cop with a sense of propriety; Gwana is the former resident of the slums come back to police them; Chris is another amoral racist pig. There’s not much there there. More disappointingly, there’s not much there in the residents of Montfermeil, either. Issa is just a troublemaker. Buzz is just a lonely perv with the barest sense of social responsibility. The adults of the place are sketchily drawn themselves. The mayor is mostly concerned with maintaining his own control. The dealers want peace in the neighborhood so the cops don’t have a reason to bust down the doors. Salah (Almamy Kanoute) is impressive and quotable, but not ready for primetime when it comes to dealing with the cops; he credulously believes the story that Ruiz feeds him about how Issa was shot in the face. There are plenty of good scenes involving all of these people, and the actors are intense. But there is a difference between intensity and impact, and a difference between scolding and moral force. Les Misérables is frequently intense, and thus plenty entertaining. If it wanted to be more, all it has to show for it are pretensions.

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