Many a filmmaker has shot the inner city, the tough neighborhoods, in order to highlight the plight of the locals. In press documents for “Les Misérables” director Ladj Ly has said, “I hope the President [of France] watches the movie, so he can get a sense for what’s going on here.”
Making movies is a personal project, innately, but not all stories are autobiographical. This one is. Ly has grown up in the same city of Montfermeil, outside of Paris, where the film takes place. He’s been involved in filmmaking for the last fifteen years. This is his first feature-length film. As he states in the film’s press release, “When I was eight I was friends with [director] Kim Chapiron. He would come to the Montfermeil recreation center and that’s where we met. At the age of 15 he started this collective [Kourtrajmé] with Romain Gavras (a French filmmaker) and Toumani Sangaré, a French-Malian filmmaker.
The location where “Les Misérables” takes place is doubly significant. Montfermeil, a city with a not insignificant number of government-assisted housing, is the place where Hugo set the Cosette chapter of his epochal namesake novel. It’s changed, since the nineteenth century. The drab apartment complexes that dot the landscape have been taken over by a variety of African gangs who are engrossed in a variety of illicit trades but also who live there. The vicious circle of tit-for-tat violence among gangs is the same everywhere, from Marcy Houses in Brooklyn to Vigario Geral in Rio de Janeiro. The same story of hopes dashed, survival, the gangster life and joining the illegal trade is told countless times, and that’s not the point of this movie. As motif for his film Ly chose the cautionary tale, placing one troubled child in the center.
The story is told, however, from the viewpoint of Pento (Damien Bonnard), a police officer who got relocated to the Montfermeil area to be close to his child. He joins a squad composed of Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). They patrol the beat in an unmarked car, wearing civilian clothes. Clearly, however, Pento, a by-the-book detective, is unversed in the ways of the locals. “Stop acting a fool with that POLICE arm band, one of his new colleagues barks at him. Everyone knows we’re cops around here.”
When the aforementioned kid steals a baby lion from a visiting gypsie circus, setting a wave of anger that could degenerate into all-out riots, the three cops set off on a frantic search for the animal.
When a very violent altercation takes place between the local kids and the police (I don’t think any other police force experiences as much violence at the hand of its local inhabitants than that of France. Brazilian gangsters will use firearms on the police, other countries, too, but in France, stones and any sort of projectile that can be thrown at them will be thrown, police vehicles will be set on fire, the violence reaches full payload very quickly. After Pento, Chris and Gwada become ambushed by a violent gang and they take a barrage of stones and rocks, Gwada shoots a rubber bullet in the face of the lion thief by mistake. Or was it, a mistake?
Ladj Ly seems to take a page from Spike Lee (“Do the right thing” comes to mind) or “City of God.” The summer heat (“Les Misérables” takes place last summer, right after France’s world cup win), the urban context, tensions between the police and the locals. These parallels come all too easily, because the violence, and what sets it off, is usually the same everywhere. But the sources of the violence, of the social unease, can be attributed to France specifically. There’s a colonial history, an unemployment rate among the Arab and black migrant population that can reach 30%, the trend, and a culture of sectarianism that has become more prevalent among the younger generation. Some young African or Arab kids in the housing developments sometimes “sale français” as an insult. Their parents never did that. But Ly is careful to avoid paying lip service to this kind of culture. The film begins with the world cup final, which happened last summer and was one of the brightest days in the republic’s recent history. Masses of young men and women were amassed in bars all over the country, and, as is shown in one of the film’s early scenes, would sing “La Marseillaise.” It’s hard to square such scenes of collective joy and fervor with the potential for all-out violence that France seems to be confronted with every few years.
Maybe Emmanuel Macron will watch “Les Misérables.” And he will probably enjoy it very much, because as a work of fiction, it’s eminently watchable, edge-of-seat entertainment. But will he, and his government, for whom this film is destined, heed its call?
“Les Misérables” is a part of the competition program. In this sense, it’s in the running for a Palme D’Or or any number of other prizes, as decided by the jury.