Les Misérables was one of the two biggest films showing during my visit to GFF20. It was joint winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in May 2019 and selected as the French entry for the international film Oscar. It received 11 nominations at the César Awards in France and was picked up for US distribution by Amazon. It will open in the UK through Altitude on April 24 in over 100 sites. If, like me, you haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel or have managed to miss any of the film or stage adaptations of Hugo’s classic, never fear. This isn’t another adaptation. But it does have a clear connection to the novel. Director and co-writer Ladj Ly witnessed and recorded a disturbance in the Paris banlieue of Montfermeil in 2008 in which the police acted violently towards local Maghrebi and West African youth. Ly himself grew up in Montfermeil and his parents are from Mali. In the 1862 novel, Montfermeil is where the former convict Jean Valjean meets Cosette, a girl abused by her adoptive parents. The characters from the novel are mentioned in the film script and the film ends with a statement by Victor Hugo which sums up the social commentary of the novel and the film. Ladj Ly produced an earlier short film with the same title featuring the same trio of lead actors in 2017.
[If anyone is not familiar with the term les banlieues, which is sometimes misleadingly translated as ‘suburbs’, they refer to the large housing estates mostly built on the outer edges of the Paris conurbation. They were initially designed to house workers for local factories, but in many cases, e.g. on the North East edges of Paris like those featured in this film, they now house several generations of migrants from former French colonies.]
Ladj Ly appears to have shot most of this, his first feature, in Montfermeil and the nearby commune of Clichy-sous-Bois where the 2005 uprisings against the Paris police started. This history in turn links the new film to the classic banlieue film of 1995, La haine (due for a second re-release in the UK soon). La haine is an important film but times have moved on. I found most of the sequences of Les Misérables were familiar from the gripping French TV police procedural series Engrenages, though the new film is certainly in places more spectacular.
Ly opens his film with a sequence symbolising a powerful moment of affirmation of ‘identity’ in Paris. We see the Maghrebi and West African youth boarding a train in les banlieues, carrying the tricolore and emerging in Central Paris to join the crowds celebrating France’s win at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Most of the youths are talking about their local hero Kylian Mbappé, the young player from Paris Saint-Germain who scored the final goal in France’s victory over Croatia. Just as in 1998 when France won in Paris, Les Bleus included several players raised in les banlieues of Paris. But soon Ly deploys a familiar narrative strategy. An ‘outsider’, a police officer from rural France, arrives at his new posting in the banlieue. This is Stéphane Ruiz who joins two experienced officers in an SCU (Anti-Crime Squad) trio. Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is the ‘corporal’ to Sergeant Chris (Alexis Manenti) and the driver Gwada (Djibril Zonga). Chris immediately riles the new man by calling him ‘greaser’ and soon demonstrates his tough attitude by searching and sexually harassing young women at a bus stop (thus the reference to the Cosette character in Hugo’s novel). There is a clear policy to ‘blood’ Ruiz who is an experienced police officer but doesn’t know les banlieues. He will be given ‘tasks’ almost like a junior apprentice in a factory.
The police patrol makes a tour of le cité, picking out the various groups and identifying different power plays and players. The central narrative of the film begins when the team are directed to a confrontation between the Mayor of the commune and a Roma circus group. The Roma leader ‘Zorro’ has had a lion cub stolen and he threatens mayhem if the cub is not returned immediately. Chris sets out to find the cub in an attempt to keep the peace. In what follows, the methods used by Chris and Gwada lead to a confrontation in which a young West African boy is injured and a conflagration is threatened. Ruiz is faced with orders he doesn’t want to follow and acts in ways he thinks are ‘correct’ but which threaten his two colleagues. He doesn’t understand the local power structures and in a telling moment Gwada tells him to stop lecturing them after only a few hours of experiencing the environment of the city. The narrative has an open ending in the midst of violence followed by the Victor Hugo quote:
Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.
One of the features of the latter half of the film is the focus on younger teenagers than the trio of 20-somethings in La haine, emphasising that dissent now runs deep in les banlieues. The youngsters are there in La haine but they aren’t directly in conflict with the police. There have been other earlier banlieue films made by first generation Maghrebis but none that have reached UK cinemas to my knowledge. La haine, Engrenages and Ma 6-T va cracker were all written and directed by white filmmakers. Ladj Ly has a heavy responsibility to represent these events on screen. My first impression is that he does well to draw quite complex characters that defy immediate typing. The film faces the same problems as earlier banlieue films with regard to subtitle translations. Both the police and youths use forms of slang and some of the translations seem contentious to me. The young teenagers are referred to as ‘bus’, the Roma are ‘Gypsies’ (definitely a contentious term in the UK) and there are references to the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ which has specific connotations that I’m not sure are relevant here. There is a lot of narrative data crammed into 102 minutes and I look forward to a second viewing. I hope the film gets the audience it deserves. One negative feature that might have an impact is that having displaced Portrait of a Lady On Fire as the French Oscar nomination, the film does not feature significant roles for women outside of the young women at the bus stop, the rather fierce police commander and Gwada’s mum.