Les Misérables is set in Paris, June 2014. France wins the World Cup, beating Croatia. Bars screening the live match are packed, and after the victory, crowds fill the streets. Tricolour flags, fireworks, chantings of La Marseillaise, the national anthem, in unison.
French citizens of different ethnicities and origins are together, united, in celebration of the championship. They are all proud of living in France, of being French. And in their shared celebration, all economic and social divisions are temporarily forgotten. The nation is united as one.
Les Misérables is the thought-provoking debut film of Ladj Ly, based on an award-winning short that he directed in 2017. This crime film is set and filmed in the French banlieue (suburb) of Montfermeil, the director’s hometown. It is Montfermeil where Victor Hugo wrote his famous 1862 novel Les Misérables, and where part of the story develops, but this new film has nothing to do with the French historical novel, nor its musical adaptation. It’s not from Victor Hugo that Ladj Ly found his inspiration, rather, the film is inspired by the 2005 riots in working-class suburbs outside of Paris. The death of two young boys hiding from the police led to weeks of unrest, confrontations between demonstrators and police, and public buildings set on fire.
Moving from the peaceful French countryside to work in the Anti-Crime Brigade in a poverty-ridden district outside Paris is a shock for brigadier Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard). In this multicultural neighborhood of worn-out housing projects, the tension between communities is high. Influential local leaders maintain the peace, but this equilibrium is extremely unstable and community divisions could quickly turn a little misunderstanding into turmoil. It doesn’t help that the police officers patrolling the streets constantly terrorize people and abuse their power.
As we see more and more of the decaying, degraded, ghetto-like neighborhood, the fraternité, the togetherness seen at the beginning of the film with the World Cup celebration, is replaced by a much harsher reality. The nation is not united, there’s no equality. Montfermeil is a totally unattended district, completely deteriorated, as if the neighbors were second class citizens who didn’t deserve to live in basic livable conditions.
Brigadier Ruiz’s first day of training is far from ideal, and he is caught off-guard. He has been assigned to work with a couple of veterans, Gwada (Djebril Zonga), and Chris (Alexis Manenti), who is shockingly proud of his nickname Pink Pig. Both officers often act recklessly and with a massive lack of ethics. Chris is clearly a bad cop. He is a bully, racist, cynical, aggressive, and enjoys harassing teenage girls. He believes he is above the law and feels entitled to operate outside legality sometimes. “I am the law!”, he screams at one point.
Next to Chris, Gwada is more polite, quiet and laid-back, but in his silence, not standing out to his partner, he becomes an accomplice to him. And when a simple arrest of a boy turns dramatically astray, it’s Gwada who loses control.
Things get twisted when Issa (Issa Perica), a local teenager, steals a lion cub from a Romani circus. Furious and violent circus members arm themselves with sticks and pay a heated visit to the local mayor, and threaten to come back with guns. Stéphane, Chris, and Gwada need to find the baby lion to avoid a war between the two gangs. Finding the little troublemaker Issa isn’t hard, but in their attempt to arrest him, things get awfully out of hand, and to Chris’ dismay, a drone has filmed the whole incident. Stéphane will need to decide if he does what his conscience dictates, or stick to what his partners command. If the video of their action is shared, it could do a lot of damage. Not only would their future be at risk, but the peace in the community might also be at stake.
The acting is nothing but impeccable in Les Misérables. Amazingly, apart from the main leads, most of the people who star in the film are not professional actors but locals from the neighborhood. This helps to add authenticity to the film, as well as the way it’s filmed. Ladj Ly, having been born in the commune, is a perfect guide and excels at portraying the tough reality of living in such a place.
A setback in an otherwise very interesting movie is that we see the action mostly through the perspective of the police officers, and it’s a male-dominated world. Seeing as the film clearly wants to denounce racial and socio-cultural discrimination and police brutality, it might have been interesting to see more of the oppressed side. It should also be noted that there are no substantial female characters. Women only appear as passers-by in the storyline; there isn’t a single remarkable female character.
A very interesting idea developed in Les Misérables is the difference between fear and respect. Chris is convinced that with his bully-like attitude, people respect him. But he is mistaken, and even the newbie Stéphane realizes it. “What respect?”, he snaps at him at one point, “People here just fear you”. The danger of mistaking respect for fear is that the latter can quickly become hatred. And once scared people lose fear and take things into their own hands, the situation can quickly get heated. In the end, violence only breeds more violence.
Les Misérables won the Jury Prize in the Cannes Film Festival and was France’s submission to the Oscars.