The Academy Awards have been criticized for not being ambitious or diverse enough, which is true. But, I’ve seen plenty of risks taken in the Best Foreign Language Film category; mostly from movies I admire more than I actually enjoy. This time last year, Lebanon’s Capernaum received a public theatrical run shortly after being nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. I remember walking away from the film with a heavy heart. It was a film made with integrity, but it was also a deeply depressing watch. So troubling, in fact, that it made watching the movie quite difficult.
One year later, and I’m feeling déjà vu over Les Misérables, France’s submission that’s recently been nominated for (the now renamed) Best International Feature at the Academy Awards. Ladj Ly’s film is a more watchable film though, and Ly does a good job threading a story of fittingly unbearable themes within a diverse yet problematic community.
My issue is with the film’s individual characters, most notably the central policemen movie goers follow for most of the movie. We’re supposed to identify with “the new guy”, Corporal Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), who has transferred to be closer to his fractured family. Ruiz, however, is paired with seasoned SCU officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). Chris is an obnoxious braggart who sucks at hiding his racism and homophobia; Gwada has experience ignoring it. Ruiz’s team patrols neighbourhoods, where they run into wandering teenagers and other familiar locals who receive their own private stories. But when an incident is caught on a drone camera involving a misuse of Gwada’s weapon, everyone gets involved.
The script (written by Ly, Giordano Gederlini, and Alexis Manenti) isn’t supposed to shy away from any discriminatory ugliness, but it’s hard to witness when there’s hardly any sufficient follow through with the lead characters. Even Ruiz becomes numb to it, which is either poor characterization or a bleak reality check. Just like Capernaum, Les Misérables has been made with an unflinching degree of confidence, but its voice is too quiet to make any arguments.
The tempo does pick up when the main conflict starts to involve more people, slowly increasing the intensity of key choices by those in power. But, it all builds towards an off-the-wall angry confrontation that I’m still processing – as I expect other viewers will too. A final title card helps place emotions into context (and helps give the film’s title more meaning), but this also encapsulates how frequent Les Misérables comes close to falling off the edge.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie