The world of Les Misérables is a world taken straight from a mediocre rap song. It is not about a coherent social picture, nor about narrating through local micro-stories. It’s about evoking strong emotions with the help of a general idea of the street jungle and the French suburbs. It is not even particularly important whether the picture outlined by Ladj Ly is accurate. The most accurate cliché still remains a cliché.
Here in Les Misérables, the police will shake Montfermeil with violence and fear, and the district itself, a kind of cultural cauldron, will choke on internal disputes. This is the law of the street, the debuting director seems to say, that the most innocent suffer, those who have no chance for a different life and have no tools to improve their fate – children.
The French candidate for the Oscar in the category of foreign film is a picture composed of several perspectives. A new policeman whose honesty and sense of duty contrasts with the violent behavior of his colleagues, a local scamp whose crazy ideas conflict him with the police force, and a boy with a drone, which he uses mainly to watch girls. As one can guess, these three stories intertwine to form a conflict axis.
Dynamic editing (here a camera from the hand, there from behind the actor’s back, here again drones flying above), which would work perfectly in the music video, in Les Misérables becomes one of the main obstacles that make identification with the characters difficult. We just don’t have time to get to know them well. What’s more, Ladj Ly doesn’t make this easier in a story. The exhibition of the characters is rudimentary, and its elements were scattered randomly at various points in the film. The desire to show the chaos of the street and the dangerous space of the suburbs almost completely obscured the heroes of this world. And yet in socially involved story they should be in the foreground. In this sense, a reference to Victor Hugo’s novel is just a whim – an attempt to give more value to something that would be sufficient in itself. It’s looking for contexts because of some internal constraint.
Debuting creators can be forgiven a lot. Indeed, one should not deny the French director his good intentions, but it seems that he lacked the strength to process reality, and not just share a vision that most of us are well aware of. And it’s not just about intellectual value and more or less successful contextual hide-and-seek game.
Les Misérables It is a movie late for many social eons. It shows the inhabitants of the suburbs as “outsiders”, as Others. But even the French themselves changed their optics when it comes to seeing social problems. This was confirmed by the protest of yellow vests, which proved that a farmer opposing the dismantling of the dairy industry by the state has a similar interests as a poor boy of color from the suburbs, strangled by the system and locked in a bleak block of flats. One could expect much more from the artist who grew up himself in the suburbs of Paris, in Montfermeil.
Ladj Ly is not only trying to show the powerlessness of the suburbs, but is
also powerless himself in the face of the vastness of the subject he has undertaken.
Perhaps for him the suburbs he remembered from years ago are just a distorted
memory, just like the content of a book read long time ago, after which only the
memory of the title remains.
 Michał, thanks for the lead!