Les Misérables: 24 hours of violence in the Paris streets

Director Ladj Ly offers an insider’s view of how police brutality ripples through a deprived banlieue in the French capital.

2 September 2020

By Catherine Wheatley

Les Misérables (2019)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Les Misérables is in UK cinemas from 4 September.

Les Misérables opens with documentary footage of 15 July 2018, when France won the World Cup. Fans wave the tricolour and set off fireworks. Bodies black, brown and white bounce in unison. Cheers of “Vive la France!” overlap with the incantation of players’ names: Mbappé, Dembélé, Matuidi, Fekir.

One beaming boy, light-skinned and gap-toothed with a close-cropped afro, stands out. We will see him again soon in a police station, where he has been arrested for stealing a bag of chickens. By the film’s end this shining face will be battered swollen: the eyes black, the nose bleeding. The boy’s trousers will be stained with urine, his shoulders hunched and shaking: the sacrificial victim of a broken system. It is a bravura performance from newcomer Issa Perica.

The main body of the film takes place over a single day: for Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), the first working with an anti-crime unit in Paris’s Montfermeil, alongside volatile squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti – white, wiry, sporting a buzz cut and a T-shirt emblazoned with the word VENOM) and taciturn Gwada (Djebril Zonga – an imposing French-African with cornrows). An early sign that Stéphane might be in for Training Day-style trouble occurs when Jeanne Balibar’s station chief advises him that Chris’s ways might be unconventional but that above all, the team values loyalty. But for the first 40 minutes director Ladj Ly offers a calm immersion into the down-at-heel but surprisingly vibrant neighbourhood, bathed in late-summer sunlight.

It is 38 degrees outside and the residents are still celebrating France’s World Cup win. The squad members exchange fond insults with the street kids, who they teasingly refer to as ‘bugs’, and resolve petty conflicts between market stall holders. On the whole, they appear to be a force for good. After all, as Gwada tells Ruiz, “This is our neighbourhood. We grew up here”.

Of course violence eventually erupts and each of the officers fails in different ways a test of morality. But as the day draws to a close and these men return to their wives and daughters and mothers, they are yet humanised.

Developed from a 2017 short of the same title, Ly’s debut feature is ostensibly a banlieue film (a genre of the life of marginalised suburban, mostly male youth in French housing estates) – but with the difference that Ly himself grew up in Montfermeil. Unlike the directors of earlier works such as La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) and Etat des lieux (Jean-François Richet, 1995), he offers an insider’s view of the social tensions that shape the lives of his characters.

Les Misérables (2019)

The film marks itself out from its antecedents in various small ways. The inhabitants of Les Bosquets – particularly the women – know their rights and are uncowed by the police presence. During one otherwise ill-judged sequence where Chris harasses a young woman, her friend whips out her mobile phone and starts filming. The moment foreshadows the pervasive presence of a drone camera, which allows for some stunning overhead photography, marking a break with the Steadicam footage so prevalent in the genre while retaining a documentary feel. It also marks a crucial plot point, signalling that contemporary surveillance culture runs both ways.

But there’s a confusing paradox underpinning the film. As a youth, Ly was a member of the Montfermeil collective Kourtrajmé, alongside directors Romain Gavras, Kim Chapiron and Toumani Sangaré (whose 1997 debut – entitled Montfermeil Les Bosquets – was produced under its umbrella). Les Misérables is a similarly collaborative effort, co-written with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti (the actor who plays Chris).

The very existence of this film – the product of the suburb, of racial and social solidarity – is something to be celebrated: a flower sprung from concrete. Its depiction of the ways various individuals survive in a society lined with touchpaper is tremendously subtle and accessible. So it’s jarring when, in its final moments, the film descends suddenly and steeply into the abyss, with a shockingly violent and nihilistic coda. Perhaps it’s naive to cling to Les Misérables’s early vision of hope. Perhaps the only solution to a corrupt system is to burn the whole thing down.

Still, it seems in the 25 years since La Haine we haven’t come that far after all, ideologically or cinematically. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…?

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