Friday, May 29, 2020

Les Miserables Lends an Unflinching Glimpse at Systemic Prejudice

No prisoner 24601 to be found here. Instead, Les Miserables is a 2020 French movie hailing from director Ladj Ly, one that follows an assortment of different lives in Paris, France who find themselves entangled over the course of a single day. This story begins with Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a new transfer to the Paris police department. For his first day on the force, he's paired up with Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). It isn't long before both Stephane and the viewer realize that Chris is prone to using his powers as an officer to target citizens of color. Meanwhile, juvenile delinquent Issa (Issa Perica) has sparked conflict in his neighborhood by poaching a lion cub from a circus troupe.

The people in charge of that circus want their cub back shortly or there will be hell to pay. Now, the clock's ticking as the three cops, as well as other members of the community like The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) are on the search for Issa and that cub. This hunt leads to the primary crux of the screenplay for Les Miserables', which was penned by Ly as well as Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. Specifically, that crux centers on audience point-of-view character Stephane getting a first-hand glimpse at how far powerful institutions will go in dehumanizing other people to protect their own skin.

How can the citizens of Paris not mistrust authorities meant to protect them when people like Chris harass teenage women of color at a bus stop? An even more urgent demonstration for why the downtrodden have such contempt for the powerful comes after Gwada fires off a flash-ball in the face of Issa. A child has been knocked unconscious and Chris and Gwana's only response in this situation is to flag down a drone that filmed the incident. Such a scene not only reflects the corrupt priorities of these characters, but it also serves as a microcosm of how Les Miserables is also fixated on ever-shifting power dynamics. In any given scene, the person who wields all the influence can change at the drop of a hat.

This is particularly true depending on what location the story of Les Miserables is taking place in. Exterior locales tend to be where the police officers have all the power. They're out in the open, they can flag down reinforcements with no problem. Interior locales, like a restaurant owned by former criminal Salah (Almamy Kanoute), though, that's where the citizens are able to have some form of control. Chris shrinks down from a shouting brute to an outmatched coward stepping into this place. Teenager Buzz, the owner of the fateful drone, serves as the best example of how Les Miserables depicts ever-changing power dynamics. Early in Les Miserables he uses the drone to spy on neighboring women changing their clothes. He has the power in this dynamic. Yet, later on, when he's confronted by some of those same women over his inappropriate behavior,  Buzz goes from being king to a pauper.

Later on, it's Buzz, rather than some criminal mastermind, that manages to send the three police officers into a state of chaos. Who would have guess that this kid and his drone would be the ones with all the leverage when paired against the cops? Ladj Ly's examination of ever-shifting power dynamics lends a sense of realism to the exploration of systemic prejudice in Les Miserables. Ditto for his Robert Altman-esque screenplay, which follows the lives of numerous characters in order to explore how this prejudice affects so many different people. There's a rich story for each of the people somebody like Chris dismisses as just another criminal they need to bring off the streets.

Ly's direction is also solid work, even if his repeated use of having the camera abruptly zoom in and mildly shake ends up being more distracting than engrossing. Though clearly an attempt to emulate documentary footage as to lend a sense of realistic urgency to Les Miserables, it's an idea that ends up being better in concept than in execution. On the other, Ly's filming of a climactic showdown in a run-down apartment building is extremely well-done. The cramped space of this location can be so viscerally felt as the sequence goes on and it captures a sense of unpredictable chaos impressively well. Bravo too for the decision to end Les Miserables on an ambiguous note. This route sends the audience off to ponder over the expansive story Les Miserables has presented rather than reeling from an act of on-screen violence.

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