A man reaps what he sows.
Watching Les Misérables is like watching a prophecy filmed a year ago about the social unrest in America today. The only difference is that the movie is located in France. The film’s no-frills direction, realistic acting and white-knuckle pacing made me feel like I was watching a documentary. The film won the 2019 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, and was nominated for Best International Feature for the 2019 Academy Awards.
The film opens with a sequence showing the shared jubilation in France winning the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Everyone from all walks of life, rich and poor, black and white, Muslim and Christian celebrated the game and France’s victory. Unfortunately, the shared sense of national pride and togetherness doesn’t last beyond that one day, however.
The movie focuses on a trio of police officers in the SCM (street crime unit, which they nickname the “smack combat unit”), an anti-crime brigade that focuses on the largely minority commune of Montfermeil, ten miles outside of Paris. Over the course of a day, racial tensions simmer over a crime committed by a child. The police struggle to maintain their power over the predominantly minority citizens through intimidation and fear, while the adult residents fight among themselves to keep their criminal enterprises running.
In a riff on Training Day, Corporal Stéphane Ruiz, a newcomer to the team, serves as our surrogate. What he sees on his first day on the job leaves him completely gobsmacked. As the day goes on, his outrage gradually rises to the surface, leading him to confront Chris (the unit sergeant) on how he abuses the citizens.
The film depicts an uneasy alliance between various adult leaders of the community and the police. Criminal elements are tacitly allowed to persist by the police so long as drugs and violence are kept in check. As the film shows us throughout the day, the children and teenagers in the community reap nothing out of the arrangement. Their lives are spent largely in poverty, playing in worn-down playgrounds and trash-strewn streets.
Issa, one of the children in the neighborhood of African descent, steals a tiger cub from a nearby circus run by Gypsies. (The movie only identifies them as Gypsies.) This situation leads to a confrontation between the Gypsies and the Africans that the police are barely able to contain. Later, the police determine who stole the cub and attempt to apprehend the child for questioning. A struggle ensues where the local children attack the officers, throwing objects at them. Issa gets hit in the face at close range by a flash ball. When the squad sees that the incident has been filmed by a drone, the squad leader seeks out the owner by leveraging his criminal contacts in the city.
Eventually, the squad recovers the memory card and go their separate ways. We see each member of the squad at home with their family. The way Chris treated the citizens–and children in particular, horribly, he isn’t a complete monster. He has a wife and two young daughters. Gwada, the officer who hit Issa with a flash ball, grew up in the neighborhood, cries in front of his mother moments after he arrives at their apartment. The emotional toll the job takes on him and the others on the team is immense.
Later in the evening, Gwada meets Ruiz at a local bar. Ruiz confronts Gwada about the incident with Issa, and Gwada confesses that in that moment, when they were trying to apprehend Issa, he lost it and shot the kid. With the constant stress the job entails, Gwada’s emotions got the better of him. Earlier in the morning, Ruiz’s Captain told him that team solidarity is everything. Having been on the job only one day, Ruiz does not want to cause trouble and becomes complicit in covering up a partner’s criminal act, a decision that quickly has severe repercussions.
The final act of the movie sees the squad lured into a trap by a large group of children and teenagers, where they are pinned down in an apartment hallway and pelted with debris and homemade projectiles made from fireworks. But the children don’t just lash out at the police; they also attack the other adults who attempt to stop the violence: the neighborhood criminal bosses. As the movie depicted throughout the previous day, the bosses allowed and enabled the behavior of the police, so they deserve retribution as well.
The movie makes an argument that when the children and teenagers in the neighborhood resort to violence after one of their own has been mistreated, that revenge is their only option. While the various adult leaders have maintained their grip on the community, the vast majority of the people living in the community have no way of escaping an endless cycle of poverty. They have no future to speak of. The only thing they have is anger and numbers.
The movie shows how a relationship between Ruiz and Salah, a local Islamic leader and owner of a restaurant, helps to resolve conflict because it is based on mutual trust and respect. Ruiz also went out of his way to show Issa kindness by tending to his wounds and helping to get Issa out of a bad confrontation with the Gypsies after the tiger cub is returned. In the end, Ruiz’s actions may save his life and that of his squad, but the movie leaves things open-ended.
The movie is named after Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, which was written in the same town where the events take place. It ends with a quote from his novel that all of us would do well to keep in mind while we go through our lives in this crazy world: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” Highly recommended.