It’s been a stellar year for films in languages other than English. Parasite’s awards success was a wake-up call, a reminder that those words at the foot of the screen shouldn’t stand in our way of watching great cinema. Another came with Celine Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, but it also begged a question. Why was such an outstanding film not the French entry in the foreign language category at the Oscars? The answer arrives in UK cinemas this week, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, the debut of director Ladj Ly, and a film that couldn’t be more different from Sciamma’s if it tried. Who’d be a jury judge?
Rest assured, Les Miserables has no songs or big star names. It’s set in an impoverished Parisian banlieu, full of faceless apartment blocks occupied by families of immigrant descent. But this also happens to be the same part of Paris where Victor Hugo wrote his novel and has a story line reflecting the themes and ideas he captured on his pages. At the centre is cop Stephane (Damien Bonnard), who’s moved to the city to be closer to his son. He’s assigned to work with two other officers, Chris (Alex Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), who are supposed to show him the ropes. But he’s increasingly alarmed at their tactics, those of Chris especially who does things his own way, and when a dispute between one of the black gangs and the owner of a travelling circus gets out of hand, it escalates into a vicious riot, spearheaded by the local teenagers. And Stephane is caught in the middle.
It seems nothing has changed since Hugo’s Paris. The attitudes of the authorities, poverty, unemployment, they’re all still there and the banlieu is a tinder box just waiting to explode. All it needs is the tiniest spark and it doesn’t take long, especially after the opening sequences with one youngster and his friend celebrating a football match. It’s full of exuberance, joy and fun, but it doesn’t last. And Stephane can see it unfolding in front of his eyes, driving him to literally disobey orders. You can’t blame him. Chris is out of control, seeing himself as the law and, while Gwada is a decent guy, he can’t – and won’t – stand up to his boss and is increasingly under his influence. There’s multiple shades of grey here – both sides are as bad as each other, but in different ways – but we’re also being shown what happens when a system treats the poor with contempt and cruelty. Eventually, something has to give.
Ly uses a documentary style to tell his story, one that reminds you of so-called reality TV, except this is infinitely more serious and there’s no breaking of the fourth wall. The tension escalates until a final twenty minutes of extraordinarily authentic, nerve shredding violence. You can almost smell the smoke and even more arresting is the way it finishes, leaving you to decide the conclusion for yourself. It doesn’t matter which way you jump, because it ain’t gonna be good. It all makes for an impressive feat of cinema, all the more so given that it’s Ly’s debut, one full of intensity and apparent spontaneity so that it looks largely improvised. It keeps you increasingly on the edge of your seat, but then throws you off balance by showing Chris and Gwada at home with their families, the other side of the men we’re shown ruling over the streets. Is it designed to make them more sympathetic? Not necessarily and it actually doesn’t, but it shows there are the proverbial two sides to every story.
That final sequence will stamp itself on your mind. Coincidentally, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire also had a stunning final scene. The two are completely different and memorable for different reasons, and so are the films. This eventual Oscar nominee is rougher round the edges but that suits its purpose and style. It’s raw, empassioned and uncompromising. The other is a more sophisticated piece of cinema, one from a different perspective and something of heartbreaking beauty and elegance. The choice is yours and it won’t be easy. Because Les Miserables is a gut-punch that will leave a deep metaphorical bruise.