Not Misérable(s) at All
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
During the period of relative lockdown relaxation in the Autumn I made some small effort to support the catering and entertainment industries, enjoying a handful of pub/restaurant meals and four trips to the cinema. The cinemas I attended (three different ones) were far less well patronised than the dining venues. The largest audience I found myself part of consisted of five people, the smallest just one. All four of the films I saw had provoked a certain level of critical enthusiasm and feature in Sight and Sound's top 50 of last year. The first of them, Babyteeth, I've already written about, David Fincher's ambitious Mank (currently on Netflix) I'm still mulling over, and the widely-praised British horror Saint Maud I'll probably pass comment upon when it comes out on DVD next month.
Which leaves Ladj Ly's César-wining Les Misérables - newly available for home viewing in the UK and highly recommendable, though I do wish it went by another name.
Set in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, where much of Victor Hugo's great novel was written and where he located the Thénardiers' disreputable inn, documentarist Ly's first dramatic feature takes an epigraph from the book, shares it's concern with society's marginalised, and climaxes in scenes of localised insurrection. Yet here the similarities end. The evocation of Hugo strikes me as misleading, not just because of the generalised nature of any indebtedness as because it appears to deny a much more meaningful dialogue with another originating text - Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 monochrome masterwork, La Haine (Hate).
Famously, François Mitterrand summoned government ministers to a screening of Kassovitz's film shortly after its release, alarmed by its persuasive depiction of the Parisian banlieues as the site of deep social deprivation, hopelessness, violence and (yes) hate. Quarter of a century on Emmanuel Macron was, it seems, similarly troubled by his viewing of Les Misérables. Plus ça change, one might think, were it not that the new film, based on real events that took place during the summer of 2008, updated by a decade to the summer of 2018, ultimately lacks the attention-grabbing force of La Haine. It has contrasting qualities of its own.
Nowhere near as austere, stylised or bleak, it's perspective is much more that of classic liberalism and its focus less on individual alienation, than on collective feelings of victimisation and resentment. Most of its characters, no matter what their discontents, clearly feel part of a larger culture - familial, ethnic or religious. Indeed, it is partly a film about the dynamics of large groups and crowds. The issues it engages with are fluently dramatized (perhaps over-dramatized) and the whole shot in vibrant colour. The stunning opening footage of the jubilant celebrations that flooded the Place de la Concorde after France's 2018 World Cup victory seems a record of something from a far more distant era, in a year when the only urban crowds we have seen have been gathered in protest. It establishes a tone of utopian possibility that the rest of the film doesn't entirely extinguish.
Following this prologue, Les Misérables sets out as though it is going to be not that far removed from a liberal Hollywood cop movie. Ruiz, a part-Spanish police officer who has moved to Paris from the countryside for family reasons, is appointed third part of team patrolling the streets of Montfermeil. The squad is lead by the bullying, cynical, aggressive Chris (abrasively embodied by Alexis Manenti, who had a hand in the script) and also includes the quietly compliant black cop, Gwada. Witlessly mocked by his colleagues as "greaser", Ruiz observes the constant low-level abuse of power with growing disquiet, though, as edgily played by hard-working Damien Bonnard, he is far from being an easily sympathetic presence, or an unequivocal pillar of decency.
Daily routine is disrupted when the squad are charged with retrieving a lion cub stolen by an incorrigible juvenile from a Gypsy circus. Their search for this abducted animal becomes increasingly desperate, punctuated by tense stand-offs where a careless word or gesture could ignite violence. The insensitivity, arrogance and carelessness of their policing methods rapidly provokes a crisis when a clumsy attempt to make an arrest in a playground full of hostile teenagers leads to an alarming misdemeanour, setting off another, more corrupt chase to seize evidence caught by drone.
What raises all this above the predictable is Ly's obvious familiarity with the location and evident skill in marshalling a large cast without star names. As seen here, Montfermeil is a community whose poverty and insularity creates a fertile environment for crime, but far from being simply a criminal community. On the contrary, it has a varied and busy, if precariously maintained, inner life. The Muslim clerics we encounter do not appear to be preaching radicalism so much as sobriety and restraint. Especially memorable is Salah, a one time career criminal, now a café-owning Imam and charismatic community leader. The way the film presents him is not un-ambivalent (the police despise him) but we are invited to view his reformation as sincere. (The only uncomfortable notes in the film come in the altogether less nuanced depiction of the Romani characters, who appear as reckless, sentimental and on the constant brink of hysteria.) Throughout, the recourse to vertiginous overhead shots following the movements of a drone suggest a larger ethical perspective within which the chaotic human action can be viewed.
The brilliantly staged climactic scenes of organised riot with which the film concludes are both frightening and weirdly exhilarating, whilst not entirely exiling hope. La Haine ended with the frame freezing on two youths pointing guns at each other. Carnage seemed inevitable. Les Miserables ends with the frame freezing on a boy grasping a lighted petrol bomb, with just the smallest possibility he may not throw it.