Although it shares the name of Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel, writer-director Ladj Ly’s 2019 film is not a remake of the Hugo novel, and it definitely has almost nothing in common with the Broadway musical. Part of Hugo’s story takes place in Montfermeil, east of Paris. This is where Cosette grows up as a near-slave of the cruel innkeepers, the Thénardiers, and this is where Jean Valjean meets Cosette and buys her from the Thénardiers.
By 2005, Montfermeil was an isolated ghetto with a minority population. Malian-born director Ladj Ly was living in Montfermeil at the time that anti-police brutality riots broke out there and elsewhere. He used his video camera to document the events and other examples of police misconduct.
After a documentary montage of scenes of mostly minority youth celebrating France’s victory in the 2018 World Cup, Les Misérables opens with the arrival of Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a cop who has been transferred to the Anti-Crime Brigade in the Montfermeil neighborhood of Les Bouquets. His new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) tease him for being an out-of-town hick who has no idea what he is about to get into. Chris arbitrarily hassles three black girls waiting for a bus. One of them points out that what Chris is doing is illegal. When she pulls out her phone to film him, Chris grabs the phone, destroys it and tells the girls that in this neighborhood, he is the law. Stéphane is shocked. But Les Misérables is more than a French version of Training Day. Ly presents the point-of-view of numerous locals, not just the three policemen. As Stéphane soon learns, there are other powers-that-be in the neighborhood. For example, there’s The Mayor, the unofficial boss of the projects, and Salah, an ex-drug dealer who is now religious and the respected owner of a kebab shop. There is also a gang of violent drug dealers.
But the real protagonists of the story are the children who roam the streets, combining innocent play with not-so-innocent other activities. The police call them “The Bugs.” This tinderbox threatens to explode when a traveling circus, run by Roma (Gypsies) threatens to destroy the neighborhood because someone has stolen their leader’s pet lion cub. They want it back. To avoid all-out warfare, the police, The Mayor and Salah, and even the drug dealers, must find the lion cub…right away.
It soon becomes clear that the animal was stolen by a barely adolescent troublemaker named Issa. But when the police find Issa, something goes terribly wrong. Enter the neighborhood nerd, Buzz (played by Ly’s son Al-Hassan Ly). Buzz has a drone that he uses to spy into girls’ bedrooms. During the arrest of Issa, Gwada, who grew up in the neighborhood, pulls the trigger on his flash-gun and badly injures the boy in the face. While the cops debate their options, they learn that Buzz has captured the incident on video.
For all the emphasis on the various adult factions, the climax revolves around the kids. They live in an environment without escape and without hope. It is not just the police they resent, but all symbols of power, including the gangs, the Islamists and the enforcers. In an interview with David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site, Ly does refer to Victor Hugo’s novel: “Victor Hugo described the social misery perfectly. You could take practically the entire book and apply it to the present conditions there….Like Gavroche, the youth are rebelling against all forms of authority.”
There are those who think the solution to the conditions portrayed in Les Misérables is harsher enforcement and others who think what is needed is more and better social programs. But for Ly, “Everything comes from above….It’s not astonishing that Africans have to emigrate. If the African countries really controlled their resources, their wealth, there would be few Africans clamoring to come to France by boat, because Africa is one of the most naturally rich continents. The multinationals, the millionaires, make their fortunes out of Africa.”
Ly, himself, once served a two-year prison sentence for his involvement in the kidnapping and forcible confinement of a friend’s sister. In separate incidents, he was also convicted of releasing a video of police violence that included “outrageous commentary” and of verbally abusing the mayor of Montfermeil after a baby died in a fire.
Ladj Ly has said that his filmmaking was influenced by the films La Haine, A Prophet and Training Day, among others. All three of these films are worth watching. But, as Ly has said, “If nothing is done, then someone else in 20 years will come along and make a film very much like mine about exactly the same problems.”
For the record, Les Misérables was shot—in 16 millimeter—for a budget of about $1.6 million.