Premiering at Cannes last May and France’s Official Best International Feature Film, Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables” is a grand look at the intersection between the police and the slums of urban Paris in modern times.

Damien Bonnard plays Stéphane, a member of the anti-crime brigade. Stéphane is presented as someone with conviction and morals. Conviction because he has something personal at stake and morals because the job is to keep the peace as the cliques that run the slums where he patrols with Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) are on the very edge of breaking out in disorder at any minute.

The script by Ly (based on his short film of the same name), Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti presents an urgent realism in the fine lines between law and order. In particular, the seasoned officer Chris is a catalyst, or better, a match just waiting to be struck. Gwada on the other hand is someone who stands by as Chris makes his rounds, using force to keep order.

As it happens, the circus is in town and Zorro’s  (Raymond Lopez) lion cub is stolen. The trio hunt the streets of the slums in the hunt for Issa (Issa Perica), who stole the cub. Ly uses technology to convey the aforementioned realism in the trio’s hunt for Issa as well as to their ultimate detriment.

If Chris is the match, Stephane is the water, quashing the flames as best he can. The import of Stéphane’s efforts, both as an outsider and as a father are quite critical to understanding his role in this affair and Bonnard effectively conveys the emotion of both roles. Manenti is effective at scaring even the audience into submission in a similar way that Gary Oldman achieved in “The Professional.”

Gwada presented an interesting character in that he represents the people they are trying to protect while at the same time, he slowly becomes Chris – jaded and indifferent to the suffering over an equitable solution, abusing power when it suits. Gwada is just enough on Chris’s side that as the trio keep stepping on their own toes to find the cub and not disturb the peace any further that they end up getting the slummy mayor (Steve Tientcheu) involved along with Salah (Almamy Kanoute), a restauranteur who runs a safe haven.

The feel of the story is an affront to French nationalism in that, when citizens have risen up in one voice, demonstrating against laws and acts; Ly who based this story on his own childhood effectively captures the storm.

The calm before that storm is just as important, which is why Stephane is critical to the story as he tries to navigate turbulent waters made only more turbulent by terrible or regrettable decisions. The conversation between Stéphane and Gwada is perhaps the single most important note in the film: just as the antagonistic acts will not subside, the other side is unwilling to back down from their position. As the third act presents a comeuppance for our trio, there is a newfound respect for the efforts of the people to say “no” to overt tactics.

There is an understanding why France chose to submit “Les Misérables” as its International Feature entry, which was recently bestowed with a nomination in a very tight field. It speaks to so many other people who face similar challenges that “Les Misérables” is as timeless a story as it is of the moment.

  • Les Misérables