Profoundly moving, hard hitting moral drama elevated beyond being yet another ‘banlieu’ film through masterful use of cinematic language, combined with heartfelt performances from a largely non professional cast. France’s ongoing tensions around identity, race and belonging expand, confronting you head on with dilemmas about the sheer difficulty of the human condition.
Looking for something going further than social realism? Comfortable being uncomfortable? Willing to question the assumptions of multiculturalism and the liberal enlightenment project? Prepared to wrestle with the effort of formulating just what questions need asking instead of expecting someone to bring you answers? Les Miserables will be for you.
Opening with shots of young black teenagers celebrating France’s world cup victory celebrations in Paris in 2018, concluding this opening scene with a shot of the Arc de Triomphe superimposing the title Les Miserables, director Ladj Ly at once situates himself in a canon of French ‘auteurs’ while claiming space for these marginalised and excluded kids as being indeed French and, furthermore, spiritual descendants of the 19th century ‘Les Miserables’ of Victor Hugo’s novel.
Montfermeil cite (housing project / estate), on the Eastern outskirts of Paris. Following the world cup, three policemen, Chris, Gwada and newcomer to the team Stephane, are looking for a thief who’s stolen a lion cub from a travelling circus – they have a limited amount of time – if the cub isn’t returned, war will erupt between the various patriarchal groups who live uneasily alongside one another in the cite.
The liberal enlightenment project assumes the inevitability of ‘progress’ – it’s only a matter of time before everyone, everywhere in the world, adopts European (French) systems of democracy, liberal capitalism and so on. Human beings are rational and reasonable, living peacefully through democracy, state institutions and the rule of law.
The ‘panopticon’ is a system of total surveillance which emerged from 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. This can be seen to manifest in housing estates like Montfermeil – uniform, system built apartment blocks facilitating observation and control. However, the surveillance is subverted by the nerdy boy Buzz (played by the director’s son, Al Hassan Ly) whose hobby is flying drones and who, through the drone, witnesses and records an act of police brutality.
Spectacular use is made of the cite with drone shots soaring above the apartment buildings. Implying freedom, escape yet there’s something more sinister. Early on the viewer is implicated in Buzz’s pubescent voyeurism using his drone to spy on women – we see from his point of view, implicating us in his voyeurism which confronts us with how so often people in these places are used by politicians and the mainstream media as objects to be exploited for entertainment or political purposes. What’s our purpose in watching this? How many times have we watched prurient documentaries about ‘tough gangs’ or ‘problem estates?’ While ‘District 13’ or ‘La Haine’ spring to mind as obvious comparisons, Les Miserables shares some characteristics, including one crucial scene in particular, with Francois Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’. Both films show marginalised, excluded children. The same difficult age, 12 / 13, moving away from childhood into adolescence.
An academic called Anne Gillain wrote an essay about ‘The 400 Blows’ called ‘The Script of delinquency’ drawing on psychoanalytic theories from DW Winnicott and Melanie Klein. Returning to Gillain’s work helps account for why and how Les Miserables is so much more than just another ‘banlieu’/ social realist film.
Issa’s mother in Les Miserables appears, like Mme Doinel, in 400 Blows, uninterested in her son. If I understood the dialogue correctly, when the cops call at the flat, she doesn’t know where he is. Instead, she shows Gwada a room full of female friends counting out money. Clearly materialism and money are more important than children.
Stealing is central in both films – Gillain draws on psychotherapists Winnicott and reads stealing as being ‘a gesture of hope’ on the part of the child to reclaim the care and love to which they are entitled. Lead actor Issa Perica is perfectly cast as Issa – cub like himself with his delicate features, complexion, beige combat pants, sporting a T shirt with a lion motif explicitly identifying him with the animal. This however is an animal destined for a life of imprisonment as a circus animal. By stealing the cub Issa at one and the same time reclaims the nurturing to which he’s entitled and by liberating the animal expresses his own yearning for freedom beyond the confines of his current life.
If women have little visibility in Les Miserables I read this as a comment by Ly on the macho posturing of the patriarchal society he reflects. Women, when they do appear, are strong figures. Teenage girls answer back when provoked by the cop Chris, an inadequate little bully of a man. An enraged mother intervenes against the cops’ abusive questioning of four small boys.
If the state has abandoned these kids, literally excluding them and their families to the peripheries, other organisations or institutions don’t offer much in the way of alternatives. There’s the fast food restaurants and a fast food stand whose owner turns the kids away when they ask for food – the nurturing they seek, embodied by food, is denied them. Promises of reward and fulfilment through work unfulfilled for those too young to participate in economic activity.
Another form of imprisonment is implied through conformity to religion. During a scene when the boys are invited to the mosque, the camera is close in to the Imam and his co worshippers, wearing Islamic dress and beards. One of the boys yawns. Religion, with it’s imperatives of dress, conformity of appearance, closes down possibility. By contrast, when they’re left to their own devices – playing basketball, making slides from discarded car doors or goofing around in a paddling pool with water pistols, freedom expresses itself through camera work which opens out to long, expansive shots. Envisaged by the state as ordered, regimented public housing the cite becomes instead a locus of spontaneity – space around the blocks is reclaimed as somewhere to play. A similar binary operates in The 400 Blows with interior shots (carceral space) contrasted with exterior – the city as a place of exciting potentialities.
In Les Miserables carceral (prison) space manifests through cars. Patrolling the cite the three cops are confined to their car, unable to leave it for fear of attack. Ultimately, the custodians are metaphorical prisoners themselves, in contrast to the kids, who occupy the space of the cite. There seems little to distinguish the cops from criminals. At one stage, Chris negotiates a favour with the criminal owner of a sheesha lounge. Where’s the moral compass? The police here, as representatives of the state, behave in ways which are anything but reasonable and rational. Their lack of integrity shown by their appalling mistreatment of the children they’re supposed to protect.
Finally, staircases and trash feature prominently in both les Miserables and The 400 Blows, although as different signifiers. At one point Stephane is at the foot of the stairs of an apartment block, in the foyer, calling for reinforcements, unable to give his position. There’s no address on the building, this is nowhere and everywhere. Montfermeil stands for every marginalised, excluded community, indeed estates like this are to be found on the fringes of every French town and city, populated in the main by those considered ‘not enough French.’
I’m saying no more. Hopefully after reading this you’ll be off to watch les Miserables as it should be seen – on the big screen. Enjoy.
Review by trpuk1968