France’s Academy Award resume during the 2010’s has mostly been abysmal. Over the last nine years, only Mustang (2015) has garnered a Best Foreign Language nomination. That’s a significant decline from the country’s average rate of five to six nominees per decade. Nevertheless, when it chose French West-African Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables over the perfectly composed Portrait of a Lady on Fire as its representative for the Oscars, the expectation became that Ly’s offering must have closely matched the latter’s brilliance. The shock lies far from those exceptional heights.
While Ly’s narrative of class and racial tensions between Black Muslim project dwellers and the abusive cops who patrol their streets offers stressfully stitched periods of suspense, the portrayal of the Black victims lack depth.
Ly, in his directorial debut, sketches Corporal Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a new transfer. Ruiz reports to his assigned patrol with two fellow officers: Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga). They affectionately refer to him as Greaser. Chris and Gwada spend much of the first act hazing their relatively green teammate. To their surprise, Ruiz believes in some semblance of civility toward the Black Muslims he’s sworn to protect, a charge his fellow officers find naive at best.
Meanwhile, in the projects of Montfermeil (the film’s title refers to the town’s name, the place where Victor Hugo wrote his novel Les Misérables) lives a populace under the totalitarian rule of these same police. These projects once heavily trafficking drugs, now serve as a hub for prostitution. Here, Black children like Issa (Issa Perica) are hunted by the cops—abrasively thrown to the ground by prejudiced authorities without any regard for their safety. Sure, Issa routinely finds himself in trouble: his theft of a lion cub from a circus causes an initial crisis, but ultimately he’s just a kid. Nevertheless in these streets children are treated as though they’re cockerels, taken to fits of destruction like roosters crowing under a pitiless sun. When instead, they’re really idle hands left to rot by a system who disregards their existence.
Nevertheless, the lion cub Issa steals belongs to Romani performers. They threaten to start a war with the Black Muslims if the animal isn’t returned. Chris, Gwada, and Ruiz in their pursuit of recovering the lion make a horrible mistake that threatens to upend the delicate yet unruly environment they’ve stoked. To make matters worse, their actions are ironically surveillanced by a child’s drone, filmed by Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). If the tape makes it to the public, the consequences will result in chaos. The officers spend the entirety of the second act searching for Buzz and the incriminating footage in a nerve-racking house of cards.
Throughout the film, Ly often constructs magnificent tracking shots, which serve as adrenaline needles into this character study of patrolling officers. However, the narrative’s empathy for the police serves as Les Misérables’ undoing. Told from the cops’ viewpoint, while using the 2005 French riots which occurred years prior as a reference point, Ly never arrives at the interiority of the opposing Black citizens. Instead, Les Misérables rarely ceases to recognize these tread upon people as any more than what the virulent Chris views them as: animals.
Conversely, we and Ruiz witness the multiple shady connections the police have with underworld figures. In fact, Chris and Gwada have spent years conquering through intimidation and blackmail. While France hasn’t lived through Black Lives Matter in the same way Black Americans have, the weariness of a film told from the police’s perspective—humanizing them by showing their home life, their families, and their children—when the same treatment isn’t employed for the respective Black Muslims, even when one of the cops depicted is Black, is a treacherous misstep. Moreover, these authoritative men never learn remorse, which wouldn’t be an issue if Ly didn’t make such pains to aggrandize Ruiz, who ultimately tries to help Issa. It makes the final confrontation between the two, the film’s culmination, into a misguided mob depiction that does more to dehumanize these Black characters than the cops could ever do.
While Les Misérables wills itself to depict a perilous period of racial and class warfare, even with his best intentions, finding humanity within these marginalized people would require more careful reflection than Ly commits to.