Les Misérables

Cops Pento, Chris and Gwada

The title Les Misérables is now so associated with the musical that it’s often hard to remember that it was originally a novel by Victor Hugo, and an immensely significant one at that. Surely, bearing the book, the musical and various film adaptations of both in mind, writer director Ladj Ly must have had qualms about calling his film that. But he went ahead anyway and here’s the result, a bravado piece of dramatic film-making that not only justifies Ly’s use of the title but also his chutzpah.

Hugo’s masterpiece often translates as The Miserables, The Wretched, The Dispossessed and The Wretched Poor, and Ly finds the modern equivalents of Hugo bread-stealing peasant Jean Valjean in the immigrant-stuffed banlieues of Paris, where he carefully opens his story with France winning the football World Cup in 2018, to scenes of wild jubilation on the streets and youths of various non-white skin colours hoisting French tricolors aloft and lustily singing the national anthem.

Patriotic credentials established, this moment of joyous togetherness is then severely tested by what follows. In a shadowing of Victor Hugo’s original plot, the action follows Issa (Issa Perica) a kid of maybe 13 or 14 who steals, not a loaf of bread, but a lion cub from a circus run by gypsies. It all kicks off, as the gypsies, determined to get their lion back, and hurling racial abuse as they go, head out into the Montfermeil neighbourhood (where Hugo wrote his novel and set much of it too).

Close by, a provincial cop Pento (Damien Bonnard) is getting a baptism of fire on his first day in a new job, learning the ropes from Chris (Alexis Mananti, who co-wrote, along with Ly and Giordano Gederlini), a streetwise cop whose racist badassery can’t, Pento reasons, be doing anything for good relations with the locals, all of whom are described by Chris in negative terms – this one’s a retired jihadist, that one’s just out of jail, all the goods on display in the local market are fake. And so on. His buddy, Gwada (Djebril Zonga), meanwhile, smiles benignly as if to say “Chris is all piss and vinegar but at bottom he’s OK.” He’s not.

Issa (centre) and his friend
Issa (centre) and friends

Ly whirls the cops and the kid, the gypsies and the self-appointed “mayor” (Steve Tientcheu) – a gangster – together, in what almost feels like a synthesis ofTraining Day (bad cops) and La Haine (unruly burbs), adding plot twists and new developments with breathtaking speed. It’s an incident rich film, played to the hilt by all concerned – many, Issa Perica are non-actors on their first time out but you can’t tell – with the action building towards two showdowns, one between the cops and the community, the other between Pento and Chris.

It’s a film that’s said to have upset Emmanuel Macron, ostensibly because it portrays the disconnect between life in the inner city burbs and wider society. There may be another reason. Having established how French these first and second generation immigrants are, Ly isn’t at all shy about showing how French they’re not, if “Frenchness” is a commodity controlled by the likes of Macron.

The film’s power comes from the way its vision of the lives of the dispossessed is welded to its film-making style. As grievance and provocation flare erupt into open warfare on the streets, and hooded gangs launch makeshift mortar bombs against the police, Ly, DP Julien Poupard and editor Flora Volpelière rhythmically build a sense of escalating chaos, danger and loss of control, all the while attempting to keep both feet on the ground – the film is inspired by actual footage Ly shot ten years before.

There’s a difference between tough policing and unfair policing, and Ly’s major point seems to be that the one is too often confused with the other. And this leads to… a final scene in which both Issa and Pento find themselves in a Mexican standoff, with death for one or both of them looking a likely outcome.

The screen fades to black and up comes a quote from Hugo – “Remember this, my friends, there are neither bad plants nor bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” Point made, eloquently.

Les Misérables – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

13 May 2013-05-13

Keanu the interviewer in Side by Side

Out in the UK this week



Side By Side (Axiom, cert 15, DVD)

A documentary about the digital revolution in movie making that runs through the whole process – first the workings of the old photochemical technology which was king for more than 100 years and then on to how digital has changed everything, from cameras and acting, to editing and effects, the print and the projector. His Matrix experience apart, Keanu Reeves initially seems an unlikely guide to the whole thing. But he’s not just a voiceover, he’s the interviewer and producer of the documentary and it’s probably thanks to his clout that it gets access to pretty much anyone it wants. Scorsese, Lucas, Cameron, Lynch, Boyle, Fincher, the Wachowskis, among many many others. He’s a good interviewer too, adding warmth to what might otherwise have been a dry technical exercise. At one point there’s a lovely scene in which a young kid, maybe seven years old, is asking Keanu about one of the SFX scenes in The Matrix, and Keanu patiently explains it to him as if he’s never done it before. In a later chat Keanu giggles conspiratorially with Greta Gerwig as they discuss watching movies on smartphones. Kindred spirits, you suspect. Whether you are interested in digital cinema or don’t care how movies are made as long as they’re good (fair enough), Side by Side presents a digestible précis of the digital revolution we’re living through, a revolution which has changed every aspect of the production and consumption of culture, be it games, films, music, books, whatever.

 Side by Side at Amazon



Les Misérables (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

The story of an ex-felon in revolutionary France being hounded down the decades by his ex-jailer has been packing them in at theatres since 1980 and was one of the most keenly anticipated musicals to get the Hollywood treatment. I might as well just say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I hated this. In an attempt at even-handedness, I will say that director Tom Hooper has managed to keep the intimacy of the theatrical experience while adding the shock-and-awe dynamics of cinema. The cast, also, is very good, particularly the non-famous turns brought over from the stage show. As for the stars, Hugh Jackman can sing, Russell Crowe can bark convincingly, Anne Hathaway does pretty good stuff with her Oscar-winning performance of the Susan Boyle song (Oscar would doubtless say that she won the Oscar for much more than that. But quite honestly there isn’t much more than that). Best thing in it is Sacha Baron Cohen’s rambunctious, tuneful number that recalls Lionel Bart. And talking of Bart, let’s get to the fact that Les Mis has no tunes – the sung-through score is all tickle and no thrust – and I yearned at almost every second for it to break into “Consider Yourself” or anything else from Oliver!, which it did feel at every turn as if it was about to do, possibly because that’s where writers Boublil and Schönberg found their initial inspiration. Helena Bonham Carter (playing Baron Cohen’s equally crooked wife) has a fine old time working the cock-er-ney shtick left over from Sweeney Todd, all five winks to camera and ostentatious adjustment of undergarments, while earnest young men mount barricades and doe-eyed women sing keeningly. I am honestly mystified by Les Mis’s reception, on stage and on screen and hope I never have to see this again.

Les Misérables at Amazon



Broken English (Moviolla, cert 15, DVD)

It is a source of amusement in some quarters that Nick Cassavetes churns out such sweet crowdpleasers as The Notebook, the sort of thing that would have his indie-godfather dad, John, spinning in his grave, so the keepers of the Cassavetes flame would have us believe. Meet Nick’s director sister, Zoe, who works pretty much the same territory in Broken English, a film that’s taken five years or so to get any sort of release. I’m not sure why, though the fact that its central character is a dizzy old silly, desperate to just meet a guy and have kids and settle down might have something to do with it, it hardly being “on trend” to present women as romantic jellies. Working hard to put some iron into the spineless heroine is Parker Posey. And it’s a testimony to her brilliance that she just about manages it, as the story takes her from drinking too much and sleeping too easily with unsuitable guys in the USA, to an entirely unrealistic liaison in Paris, France, trademarked home of this sort of thing. Slightly more neurotic, slightly darker than the standard love plot, Broken English is an interesting example of cinema’s most reviled genre – romance – trying to get back on its hind legs.

Broken English at Amazon



The King of Pigs (Terracotta, cert 15, DVD)

Old school, almost Scooby Doo-style animation is used freshly in this South Korean drama about a couple of adults harking back to a disturbing incident from their schooldays. It takes quite a long time for this ultimately slightly wet film to reveal what that incident actually is, and how the two guys reminiscing were involved, but between opening and closing credits we’ve been treated to inventive manipulation of a now neglected style of animation, which works rapid edits, camera spins and close-ups to great effect.

 The King of Pigs – at Amazon



The Sessions (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

On paper sounding like something unbearably worthy – Catholic guy paralysed from the neck down hires sex therapist so he can get laid – The Sessions is actually anything but. The reasons are mainly the script, which is funny and wise and presents our under-copulated hero (played brilliantly by John Hawkes) as a man who just happens to be immobile rather than as a character defined by disability. The rest of the cast are pretty near perfect too – Helen Hunt as the therapist and William H Macy as the devout man’s priest (gamely, wistfully listening as his parishioner delivers graphic reports from the road to full penetration and simultaneous orgasm). Sex, morality, relationships, handled intelligently, with wit, and without overbearing moralising.

The Sessions – at Amazon



Hors Satan (New Wave, cert 15, DVD)

Bruno Dumont, director of Hadewijch, works the same territory again in Hors Satan, an almost terminally French tale of a girl out in the boonies, faintly goth/emo in her dress sense, who forms a strong connection with a shaman-like silent stranger who lives seemingly out in the open air. Where this leads is the point of the film, and Dumont’s interest in religious levels of devotion and existential integrity are well to the fore. And as with Hadewijch he uses natural sounds as a soundtrack to add psychological complexity. Personally, I had to stop halfway in to watch Dick Van Dyke dancing with the penguins in Mary Poppins just to get some air back in my head, but there’s no doubting Hors Satan’s force and its earnestness.

Hors Satan – at Amazon



Frozen Silence (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Here’s a Spanish film about the troops Franco sent off to help Hitler fight the Russians. A war film, then? Actually, no. Though convincingly dressed up in the snow and ice of the Eastern Front, Gerardo Herrero’s drama is actually a police procedural, and follows a civilian cop, now a private, as he investigates a series of mysterious ritualistic, faintly Seven-flavoured deaths. It’s an unusual setting for this sort of thing but one which really helps when the script occasionally dips into TV vanilla.

Frozen Silence – at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2013