Directed by Ladj Ly
Written by Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, and Alexis Manenti
Starring Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, and Djebril Zonga
By far the biggest story of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival was Parasite being the first Korean film to win the Palme D’or, and doing it unanimously. Part of the excitement for that film had to be what is, but also, what it is not – it is not some highbrow thing with no chance of winning awards outside the French riviera. And by that I mean at the Oscars. Nor is it a borderline-experimental film that lots of people love, but others find impenetrable and bewildering. Nor is it something fresh and arty and cool and hip that’s a harbinger of a talent on the rise, which is instantly off-putting to older viewers. In other words, it is not the type of film destined to win lesser Oscars, at best, but nothing more.
Instead, Parasite is basically two other things at once. On the one hand it was a genre piece, that had zero chance of winning any Oscars – after all, the movie literally ends with multiple stabbings at a garden party, and murder-by-philosopher’s-stone. On the other hand, it is a trenchant political/economic commentary whose very name – Parasite – could have equally applied to all three legs of this particular stool. And while it is pitch-perfect on both levels, it also expertly combines the two things into a brilliant mashup that, in hindsight, seems designed both to appeal to the box office, but also, Oscar voters.
Well, one of the other films to make a strong impression at the festival with anything like the same buzz of Parasite was Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a smaller, quiet, two-hander about a pair of women in the late-19th century who have a brief affair, the memory of which follows them the rest of their lives. Because Parasite already seemed at that moment – May 2019 – to have locked up the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the popular choice as runner-up was Portrait. Winning the best screenplay honor at the festival seemed to solidify Portrait’s position. At least, this was the assumed narrative, because surely the film would be France’s official submission into the Foreign Language Oscar race – which is now called Best International Film – where it would just as surely lose to Parasite. But, losing to Parasite wasn’t exactly the point. Rather, releasing the film as an Oscar nominee would help it’s box office, which might help it get nominations in down-ballot races, like Best Original Screenplay, Costume Design, Production Design, and Cinematography. All the Centre national de la Cinématographie in France had to do was submit it.
And then they didn’t.
Instead, they submitted Les Misérables, a far-less heralded film that still shared the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival with another politically minded film, Bacurau. Naturally, this failure to submit Portrait upended the Portrait narrative, and it’s release plans. Instead of opening in late-2019 where it could slowly start to capitalize on the impending Oscar nominations, Portrait was pushed all the way back into 2020, where it was given a mostly-perfunctory release before being shifted onto streaming.
What’s It About?
During what seems like the hottest day of the year in the Paris suburb of Montfermeil, two jaded, veteran cops operating amongst the black, Muslim, north-African population in the city, break in a more idealistic new guy. As expected, the characters are obvious types: one is far-too-invested in his job white guy who’s internalized the brutality of it; one is a black Muslim from the people he polices, trying to deal with doing a good job while also being spit on by his own people as a traitor; while the third is brand new, naïve in some ways, and has to go through the initiation of policing in the city. Tension and violence ensue, and nothing is ever resolved. Much like real life.
What Went Wrong with Oscar?
Despite its Oscar nomination, Les Misérables never had a chance of winning. First, it had to contend with Parasite, which proved to be a juggernaut as the year went on. Second, there was the racial politics of Les Misérables, which are simultaneously muddy and insightful, but also not presented in any way the Oscars find palatable, like in Green Book. In other words, the confrontational nature of Les Misérables is the sort of thing that appeals to a much smaller slice of Oscar voters than it might if it were a little more milquetoast. After all, the Academy famously all-but-shunned Do The Right Thing, only really nominated Malcom X and Training Day because Denzel Washington cannot be denied, and only really seemed to give Blackkklansman any love because Spike Lee was denied Oscar glory for far-too-long – even if his own win for Best Adapted Screenplay was the right call. Yet, it gave Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book Best Picture Oscars without also giving their directors nominations. Those facts say so much about where the Oscars stand.
Still, while you could see Portrait being a less-divisive submission to the Oscars – and one that makes sense, given the films international acclaim – there is a good story to be had in getting Les Misérables the nomination. First, it’s of the moment in so many ways. Second, it recognizes the inherent racial issues that underlie French society. Third, it’s a clapback at the at rightwing politicians like Marie La Pen. Fourth, it represents the first black French filmmaker to be nominated for Best Foreign Language/International Film.
In the end, the submission of Les Misérables seems in some way to be less about the quality of the film itself, vis-à-vis Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but much more about what submitting this specific film has to say in general.
I’m neither French by birth, nor come from France, though I have been there. I spent about ten minutes changing trains in Lille, where some very helpful woman translated the announcements over the speakers, and then spent about three days in Paris, where I mostly encountered white people. The only people of color I encountered were either at the Eiffel tower, selling trinkets on the street, or in a street market my wife and I ran across on a long walk to Pere Lachaise. The point of this? I don’t pretend to know what the history of race relations are in France, though I know that France also has a pretty bad history as a colonizer in Vietnam and Algeria, as well as a strong far-right political contingent.
All of this is a prelude to say: I have no idea if this film is an accurate representation of what’s going on in, and around, Paris. This film might be the French equivalent of Do The Right Thing, or it could be their Green Book. Having seen the film, and knowing a small bit about the man who directed it, I’m inclined to believe it’s akin to the former, but I can’t be certain.
So, does all this mean the film is effective? Yes, mostly. It’s very clear on where the lines are drawn in the racial hostilities in the city, and uses a semi-procedural format to explore them. Wisely, the film does not try to ‘solve’ racism, nor does it paint clear lines as to who is the villain, and who is the hero. Where it really goes right to me is that Les Misérables shows a police force that is good at the abstract parts of their job – investigation, following leads, doing some of the shoe-leather work of policing – while also showing the misuse of that skill in furtherance of their own biases and bad behavior.
But, don’t misunderstand me – while Les Misérables is effective, and good, it’s also a bit meandering and somewhat unremarkable. And not particularly original. When I describe the film here as being the result of the cross-pollination of Do The Right Thing and Training Day, that’s not meant as a shorthand to give you the general idea of the thing, in the same way you’d describe Speed as Die Hard on a bus. No, Les Misérables is the literal cross-pollination of those two films and you don’t have to squint too hard to see those two influences here. And if Les Misérables is going to play so closely to both those other films it needs to be far more inventive, or laser-focused, or transcendent than it is, otherwise it winds up negatively compared to films that clearly understand themselves better than this one does.
At the end of the day, that’s maybe the takeaway – Les Misérables is good, but unremarkable, whereas films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Parasite, rise above their influences to be something better.
Do you like money? Because I like money. So here’s some money facts for you about Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Les Misérables:
Despite being more internationally acclaimed, Portrait of a Lady on Fire earned just half of what Les Misérables earned at the box office.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 See e.g. anything by Ken Loach
 The Tree of Life.
 Sex Lies and Videotape and Pulp Fiction.
 Given the film wound up winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars, it’s appropriate it’s narrative began at the Cannes festival, where the jury was led by Alejandro Gonzlaez Inarritu, who is one of three men to have won the Best Director Oscar in consecutive years. The others are John Ford (1940 and 1941) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1949 and 1950)
 They are affiliated with the French Ministry of Culture and are responsible for the selection. https://www.indiewire.com/2019/09/les-miserables-france-oscar-1202175228/
 The Jury Prize is something like the third-place award.
 Fun fact: the last film I saw in the theaters before the world went into pandemic mode was Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We saw it about five days before everything went on lockdown, and very shortly before it dropped on Hulu here in the States.
 This movie is called Les Misérables, partly as an ironic nod to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, who has a strong connection to Motfermeil.
 This character was named Gwada and played by Djebril Zonga, and while watching the movie I could not help but see him summarized by that line in N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”: But don’t let it be a black and a white one//‘Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top//Black police showing out for the white cop song
 Never mind that awarding actors and their performances has a different feeling than awarding the movie. Specifically, giving Joaquin Phoenix the Oscar for Joker feels right, because he’s great in the movie, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as awarding the movie itself, which is mostly-terrible.
 Sometimes Oscar can get it right.
 Europe, in general, likes to believe they are so modern, and post-racial, despite the rampant anti-Muslim sentiment, and the making of monkey sounds and throwing bananas at black soccer players.
 The French Oscars
 Best Cinematography