The film Les Misérables, directed by Ladj Ly and formally released in November 2019, created an immediate uproar from the public and critics alike. Winning both French and international awards, including the Jury Prize of the Cannes Festival and four of twelve nominations at the César Awards, the film was seen as the voice of the suburbs it describes with frightening authenticity. Most striking perhaps was Ladj Ly’s insistence that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, see and comment on the film. The president did end up watching the film and said he was so touched by the deprivation he saw in the movie, that he asked the government to find swift solutions to improve living conditions in the suburbs.
The film follows the storyline of a policeman, Stéphane, transferring from the countryside to Paris’ Seine-Saint-Denis, also known as the 93; he meets his two colleagues and together they constitute the anti-crime brigade. The film starts slowly, portraying almost joyfully the animated life of the suburbs, alternating between markets, children’s games and policemen’s rounds to different places meeting various people involved in the life of the banlieues. The authenticity of the film, associated with the brilliantness of the script in alternating between witty and humorous scenes and characters and a true representation of the closeness of danger and violence, makes it particularly striking.
The area itself is in no way romanticised as deprivation is shown. It is the summer, and the children jump in and out of tiny inflatable pools. The buildings are broken and dirty, with inscriptions on every wall, but the liveliness of a place that everyone speaks of but nobody has set foot in is equally shown. Except for the three policemen, none of the actors are professionals: they were all cast on set. Nothing was built or adapted. Many of the scenes, especially at the start of the movie, are of people who are doing what they have done for many years; they just happen to take place in front of a camera. While the storyline seems extraordinary (it all starts with a boy stealing a lion), the characters and area itself are simply presented.
Movies on youth criminality, deprived areas, and police violence are not unusual. Years before Les Misérables, La Haine was exploring the same subject in the same area and, like its successor Les Misérables would one day be, extremely popular both in cinemas and at the Cannes festival. What is distinct about this particular film is the neutrality with which it depicts the lives of people, with a categorical insistence at not portraying anyone as the villain. It shows the difficulties of being a policeman, or any figure of authority, without becoming a terrifying representation of imprisonment, violence and arrogance; the frustration of being and having been ignored by the power in place. The need for new structures and norms to be put in place in response to poverty and deprivation, because if society doesn’t include you, who could be asked to believe in it?
The neutrality of the film allows for a vivid portrayal of power dynamics and their delicate balance in the face of informal control. The film opposes the police and the adults who are in charge of the suburbs and yet the police need them, and have granted them authority and freedom in certain dubious affairs, in exchange for a control of youth especially. The balance of this “deal” is precarious to say the least, as neither party truly accepts, let alone respects, the other. And yet Ladj Ly, if he does not particularly condone their behaviour, strongly suggests that the true evil lies elsewhere. It resides in the frustration at having been ignored for decades and the poverty of residents who live twenty minutes from central Paris yet have never seen the outskirts of their neighbourhood, and the other reality of crippled structures and every drop of power feeling like an ego-boost. This is particularly evident from the point of view of Stéphane who arrives from the countryside and hears on his first day his colleague screaming, “I am the law!” in a kebab shop whilst trying to assault a twelve-year old. Corruption isn’t overtly depicted, instead it is a little more subtle; it appears ridiculous, and insane, and hypocritical, to continue asserting the right of “the law” whilst taking “appropriate measures to the environment”.
However, Les Misérables doesn’t present the police as problem but rather criticises the structural problems. The film shows that it is the youth who pay the price. The kids whom all the adults call “mosquitoes”, stuck in the middle of their elders who fight for authority, and are more or less left to their own devices when they are not being used. They are also frightfully bored. It is the summer holidays, and it wouldn’t cross their minds that they might be able to leave their homes. Dragged from policeman to dealer to mediator to kebab-shop-owner, it is no wonder the injustice of being persecuted by people who are supposed to protect you translates into rebellion and, something all are familiar with in this area, crime.
Ladj Ly has repeated countless times, in countless interviews, that the “yellow vests” protests are old news to him and that the entire 93 community had been trying to get the government’s attention for a long time before 2019. Ly hoped that this film would warn of the actual danger (and sadness) that could stagnate if conditions didn’t change in the suburbs. Ironically, a few months after this movie came out, the government tried to introduce a law that would make it illegal to film policemen as they perform their duty. Protests in Paris have followed ever since.
Zoé Barret is a first year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student.