Les Misérables [subtitled]

Les Miserables

Obviously there are plenty of film versions of Victor Hugo’s famous novel Les Misérables. This is not one of them.

It is instead a 2019 French film that references the novel in passing but otherwise is unconnected to it. (Well, except in the sense that it’s connected thematically in that it’s about poor and suffering people in France.)

By the way, the Rotten Tomatoes website lists this as a comedy (and says it’s from 2020). That’s an error, or if intentional is a truly bizarre categorization. Granted, I routinely experience so-called black comedies as 90% drama and at most 10% comedy, so I suppose I have some degree of genre blindness, but if this film is a comedy then you’ve got a hell of a scoop.

It is set in a ghetto neighborhood of Paris, populated primarily by people who are non-white, immigrant, and Muslim—mostly all three. The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants that we see are children, neither working nor in school but mostly just hanging out and getting in trouble (or harassed by the police, who assume they’re bent on getting in trouble).

For much of the film, we follow the exploits of three French cops. I don’t know all the relevant intricacies of French law and policing, but evidently they are of some “special forces” unit that some sort of emergency decree allows to go somewhat beyond the rules that normal cops are bound by. And then in practice they in turn go beyond those looser boundaries as well.

Two of the cops are veterans. One is a cocky white guy who really, really, really likes being a cop, especially the nastier elements of being a cop. He’s the leader. The other is a black guy who, it turns out, is actually from this neighborhood. He’s not as flamboyant about it, but he pretty much accepts and shares the leader’s philosophy of policing.

The third member of the team is a newcomer who has just moved to Paris. It is clear that the way the others approach their work doesn’t sit well with him, from their corruption to their disrespect for the civil liberties of civilians (poor, nonwhite civilians, anyway) to their casual hazing of him. But for now he’s playing things close to the vest until he gets a better feel for what he can and can’t challenge, should and shouldn’t challenge. (As far as that goes, it’s not very promising that in greeting him and giving him a brief orientation, their superior back at the station told him—as I understood her—that sometimes the hothead white guy goes too far and that’s wrong, but loyalty to their own overrides any such considerations and so in the end you don’t go against your fellow cops even when they’re wrong.)

Tensions are currently even higher than usual in the neighborhood due to an unlikely conflict with a bunch of Gypsy circus folks who are convinced that some of the local kids stole their baby lion. These cops attempt to intervene, but it doesn’t go well, culminating in their shooting one of the kids. Worse yet—worse from the perspective of the cops, that is—the incident was apparently filmed by a drone camera that one of the kids happened to be operating. (He wasn’t specifically looking to document police malfeasance—it was just a coincidence that the camera was in a position to do that—but was using his drone camera for the purpose of trying to spy through windows on girls in various states of undress, since, you know, what teenage boy wouldn’t if he could?)

Will the footage be used to discredit and damage one or more of these three cops, the special forces unit, the police department, the Establishment as a whole?

That depends largely on who gets the footage. (The implication is that there’s just one memory stick with the footage that they’re looking for and fighting about; that seems highly unlikely that it wouldn’t have been uploaded to one or more devices, copied, placed on a cloud, whatever.)

If one of the two veteran cops gets it first, presumably they will destroy it. But it’s not nearly as certain what that newbie cop would do.

Within the neighborhood, there are three adults, or sets of adults, who might have something to say about the matter, as they constitute the unofficial local power centers. A big shot bar owner is most closely allied with the corrupt police and will likely side with them. Another wheeler dealer gang leader type has a much shakier relationship with those cops, so it’s more likely he’ll either use it against the cops if he gets the opportunity, or threaten to in order to coerce concessions out of them. Of the three, the one least connected to the cops is a fellow—and his partners—with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. (By the way, he runs a diner that I believe is called “Ali Bomaye.” “Ali boma ye!” was a common chant of support for Muhammad Ali when he fought George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974, and means “Ali, kill him!” in the local Bantu language.)

Each of these parties would like to work things out in a way that is most beneficial to them, and, I’m sure they would say, for the neighborhood as a whole, but the specifics—and the consequences for the cops—will likely differ depending on which of them gets the footage and is in a position to call the shots.

Evidently the kids—who seemingly have no hope, have no future, have no legal status that is respected, and are used to being ignored or let down by even their supposed allies—decide that the likelihood of any such benefits actually trickling down to them is low, and that the information they acquired will instead end up being suppressed and they’ll be screwed again. And so the movie culminates in an explosive scene where they take matters into their own hands. Strategy is out the window; they are just in a rage, and have decided to strike out violently at those who in their eyes represent their oppression.

Are they right that even their own elders are in the process of selling them out? A strength of the movie is that it leaves some ambiguity on this point. Some of the parties do seem clearly to be doing so, like the bar owner. Some, though, might not be fully corrupt and might be capable of acting on principle and trying to do right by the oppressed—like the new cop or the Muslim Brotherhood guy, with the key word being “might.” You don’t know for sure what everybody intends to do, or will do when the risk and/or the temptation is turned up substantially. But the kids seemingly are assuming the worst, or at least are not bothering to wait to find out.

Emotionally, I find it hard not to side with the kids. I’m a very nonviolent person, but there’s still at least a small part of me that instinctively wants to lash out violently against injustice. My principles tell me no, but that emotional part of me was very much rooting for them to kill the fucking cops.

The rage is understandable. The violence is understandable. I feel that pull myself. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s hard not to want the underdogs to stick it to those who have been abusing them with impunity.

I think you have to step back and realize that everyone does fucked up shit—the oppressors, the oppressed, and everyone in between. The film closes with an epigraph from Hugo: “There are no bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators.” The shocking violence and destruction from the neighborhood kids didn’t arise in a vacuum. But neither did the crime and corruption of the adults in the neighborhood nor the brutality of the cops (nor for that matter the actions of the much more indirect perpetrators of injustice who create and sustain the worldwide economic and political systems that result in inhuman conditions like we see in this slum). It takes extraordinary strength and courage to break the cycle by refusing to respond to your victimization by imposing suffering in response on your tormentors or others, but that’s the only way that moral progress happens.

So that’s really what you need to root for (as satisfying as it would be at a certain level to see cops like these get their comeuppance as brutally as possible).

If I try to look at Les Misérables as objectively as I can, it seems like a very well made movie on an intense and important subject. Indeed, as I was walking out I heard people talking about how impressive it was, and how it was the most powerful movie they had seen in memory. But I have to admit that there were significant stretches where I was kind of forcing myself to stick with it. I just wasn’t as fully caught up in this movie as it seems like it deserves. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for it or something.

So if I go just by my subjective experience of the film, I’d give it a modest thumbs up. But again, if I step back and try to assess it more objectively, I think it warrants a higher rating than that.