Les Misérables (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Two days in Montfermeil

French film “Les Misérables”, which was nominated for Best International Film Oscar early in this year, is often quite compelling as a vivid examination on race and class in the commune of Montfermeil, a suburban ghetto area on the east of Paris where Victor Hugo wrote that classic novel of the same name in the early 1860s. As busily moving around a bunch of various human figures during its 104-minute running time, the movie gradually raises its sensitive social issues along its steadily developing plot, and then it pulls all the stops during its explosive final act, whose striking last shot will linger on your mind for a long time along with a quote from the aforementioned novel by Hugo.

After the vivacious prologue sequence showing a group of adolescent boys from Montermeil going to Paris and then, along with countless other people, cheering for the French team winning the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the movie shows us one eventful day of Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a divorced police officer who has been recently transferred to the anti-crime brigade of the police station in Montfermeil due to a personal reason. Shortly after meeting two other officers Chris (Alexis Maneneti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), he is introduced to their direct boss, and he and his two new partners soon begin their daily patrol around Montfermeil.

At first, the mood among these three police officers feels casual and cheerful as Chris and Gwada often make a fun of Stéphane, whom they instantly nickname ‘Greaser’ for his rather slick hairdo. While Chris is a Caucasian and Gwada is an African French guy who has grown up in the area, it is apparent that they have become quite accustomed to each other’s presence, and the movie provides some amusement via the frequent playful banters between them, which sometimes make Stéphane rather uncomfortable for good reasons.

And then Stéphane becomes more awkward as observing more of how Chris and Gwada work on the streets and alleys of Montfermeil. At one point, Chris becomes quite aggressive to several adolescent girls just for smoking marijuana, and he could do worse than if Gwada did not intervenes in the situation later. In addition, it turns out that Chris and Gwada have maintained some unofficial connections with several prominent local criminal figures in the area mainly for keeping things under control as usual, and Stéphane, who turns out to be your typical by-the-book police officer, becomes more conflicted as working more along with his two new partners.

Meanwhile, the mood becomes a bit more intense due to a small trouble caused by one adolescent boy named Issa (Issa Perica), who happens to steal a small lion cub from the leader of a gypsy circus group. Quite infuriated by this theft, the leader of the gypsy circus group forcefully demands to a major criminal figure in the area that his precious lion cub should be retrieved as soon as possible, and, after coming to learn of the ongoing conflict between these two figures, Stéphane and his two partners must find that lion cub for preventing another violent trouble in the area.

Fortunately, they can quickly locate Issa, but then they find themselves in a big problem after attempting to arrest him. To make matters worse, what happens mainly because of their unwise actions is shot by a drone belonging to a little boy called Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), and they must find Buzz before what his video clip is leaked on the Internet and then causes more problems for them and others in their police station.

As Stéphane reluctantly goes further along with his new partners, the screenplay director Ladj Ly and his co-writers Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, which is developed from Ly’s 2017 short film of the same name, builds up more narrative momentum while also taking some time for character development. While it pays some attention to a mentally deficient guy who is incidentally the younger brother of one of the prominent criminal figures in the area, it also thoughtfully handles the impossible situation of an ex-con guy, who has tried to lead a clean new life as focusing on his religion and new occupation before Buzz suddenly comes to him for protection and advise.

Like this ex-con guy, Stéphane tries to resolve the increasingly complicated circumstance, but then he finds himself accepting more compromise than expected. At one point later in the film, Issa comes to be punished in a very cruel way, and there is nothing Stéphane can do about that. You may initially think the boy deserves some spanking, but then you will come to think twice as observing how much he is damaged in more than one aspect around the end of the movie.

As the day is being over, everything seems to be fine on the surface, but then the movie takes a left turn during its last act. This feels rather jarring at first, but it eventually comes to us a logical outcome from what has been slowly developed during the rest of the film, and Ly, who received the Jury Prize when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, and his crew members including cinematographer Julien Poupard and editor Flora Volpeliere skillfully throw us right into the raging chaos surrounding the main characters in the film.

In conclusion, “Les Misérables”, which won four César Awards including the one for Best Film a few months ago, is an electrifying and thought-provoking social drama to be appreciated for its considerable verisimilitude and the fine natural ensemble performance from its main cast members. I still think Céline Sciamma’s great film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) should have been Oscar-nominated instead, but “Les Misérables” is indeed another excellent French film of last year, and it is certainly recommendable in my trivial opinion.

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