If you're familiar with Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables from any of its various iterations — film adaptations, Broadway musicals, Cliff Notes — you know that it's the story of the peasant Jean Valjean, who is persecuted for years by the fanatical policeman Javert, and that their final confrontation takes place on the barricades of the 1832 rebellion in Paris. Director Ladj Ly's debut feature isn't based on Hugo's book but draws on its name to underscore the timelessness of his subject and to place the film's inspiration, a three-week outburst of political protests in 2005, as part of a historical chain. The story may be different, but the theme of resistance against oppression is, for better or worse, timeless.
Ly's film, which won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes festival, is set in Paris' racially mixed Montfermeil district, where the Mali-born director grew up (and where Hugo wrote his novel). It's inspired by his own experiences while recording police abuses in the neighborhood. The film offers an updated surrogate of the director, a quiet young boy who uses a remote-control drone to spy on events (and girls) in the neighborhood and accidentally films a trio of trigger-happy policemen. His video and the officers' attempts to seize it lead to a confrontation which may strike some viewers as implausible — but one in which Ly claims to have actually participated. (Ladj Ly has admitted to criminal activity in his past, including a two-year sentence for attacking a relative.)
On the surface, Les Misérables begins along the familiar lines of an action film or a police procedural. Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a policeman new to the area, spends his first day on duty with colleagues Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), cynical officers who make no effort to disguise their hatred of the locals and the pleasure they take in harassing them. As they explore their beat, Stéphane takes account of the neighborhood's residents and its social structure — community activists, children from dysfunctional families, a restaurant owner who serves as "godfather." (There's also an odd subplot involving the theft of a lion cub from a circus.) The tension escalates, yet Ly keeps the film carefully, almost unemotionally neutral.
That apparent impartiality is something of a ruse. Though much of the film seems to be presented from the position of the police, their fragmented view — Stéphane is outraged, Gwada conflicted and Chris unrepentant in his racism and abuses of power — is clearly too unstable to last. When a final series of events upends the officers' authority, it comes with a jolt, an abrupt shift of fate that exposes the precariousness of their situation.
I suspect that many viewers will sit through Les Misérables feeling that despite its loose structure and dizzying visuals, they've seen it all before: racist cops, troubled neighborhoods — what's new about that? Though it may not break through the walls of apathy for every viewer, the painful familiarity — if we haven't seen these events before, we've certainly seen the attitudes behind them — adds much to the film's power. Ly knows that we've witnessed this before, but he's going to use his 103 minutes to try to challenge our indifference. He's turned social issues we know all too well into an act of forceful cry of protest.