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.
For the Friday free screening in GFF’s ‘Rebel Heroes’ strand, the selected title was the Steve McQueen ‘action policier‘ Bullitt. I saw this film on release nearly 50 years ago and I’ve watched it a few times since on video. But I was up for another stab at the film on a big screen. All the previous archive films I’d seen at GFF were film prints in reasonable condition but Bullitt turned out to be what I assume to be a poor digital transfer to a DCP from a very dark 35mm original. As I remember the film, it offers a contrast between sunny exteriors and almost noir interiors. What we watched was just ‘dark’. I have a widescreen VHS video copy that would probably have looked better on the screen of GFT1. Since the catalogue listed this as coming from Park Circus (the company with most archive prints available in the UK) this is quite disturbing.
So, instead of settling down to simply enjoy the screening I was pushed into trying to find something new in the narrative to grab my attention. If by any strange chance you don’t know the plot of Bullitt, Steve McQueen is the titular hero who is assigned to protect a witness in San Francisco whose evidence could enable slimy politician Robert Vaughn to gain credibility before an election. Everything goes wrong and Bullitt needs to sort out the situation. The script is adapted from a novel by Robert L. Pike, Mute Witness (1963). What is surprising is that the film feels more like 1963 than 1968. Jacqueline Bisset is cruelly under-used as Bullitt’s girlfriend when an English beauty in mini-dresses driving a Porsche – and working as a designer in a large SF agency – might be considered as a major asset in the cast. The film’s score by Lalo Schifrin is very good and memorable but again it does it reflect the changing times? It’s worth thinking about The Graduate (1967) which I’ve argued is also a film that seems a little ‘out of time’ (apart from its soundtrack). Around the late 1960s Hollywood studios were beginning to think about how to attract and retain younger audiences with films that recognised the growing ‘alternative culture’. Easy Rider, when it arrived in 1969, gave the major studios something of a shock. The film I’ve always wanted to see, also set in San Francisco, is Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) with Julie Christie. This doesn’t seem to get revived. In San Francisco in 1968 you might expect some evidence of the developing Haight Ashbury scene.
Alan Hunter in his introduction emphasised that it was McQueen’s own company Solar Productions who took up the rights and increased McQueen’s role while trying to keep the locations as ‘real’ as possible, enabling shooting in both a hospital and San Francisco airport. In the end, the film stands or falls on McQueen’s performance – and he’s still cool. The car chase at its centre is still exciting. There are also some enjoyable moments when Robert Vaughn finds his imperious commands thwarted by McQueen’s silent insolence and stubbornness. The British director of the film, Peter Yates, had just come from making Robbery (UK 1967) and IMDb informs me that he had been a professional racing driver. McQueen had chosen Yates and he certainly delivered the kind of film McQueen must have wanted. Bullitt is really a testosterone-fuelled police chase movie and though Bullitt gets his man it is at the expense of the collateral death of several others. Audiences have always enjoyed the car chases and McQueen’s star presence. It’s a pity the print didn’t allow us to see them both more clearly.