Most every city in France has a public space named after the author of the 1862 classic Les Misérables. Paris has a stately square near the Arc de Triomphe, Lyon has a pedestrian main street running through its heart, and out my own window and around the corner from where I write in the smaller, tidier eastern city of Dijon there is a grand avenue named Victor Hugo.
In the 2019 film also titled Les Misérables, a veteran police officer, Chris, turns to his new partner, Stéphane, at his first day on the job and asks “Do you know why the school here is named for Victor Hugo?” When Stéphane responds that the author’s novel took place in the neighborhood of Montfermeil, which they’re patrolling, Chris mocks him with “we’ve got ourselves an intellectual here.”
It’s the rare moment where the story steps outside of itself and acknowledges its context, a slight meta exchange in an otherwise original, grounded, and bristling film by French director Ladj Ly.
From here, Ly follows only thematic parallels to the famous epic. He’s not aiming for an adaptation and he resists naming anything after Cosette or Jean Valjean or even the “Master of the House” Thénardier’s Inn, set in this exact locale. Instead, he picks up Victor Hugo’s matters of poverty, injustice, and revolt and runs with them, far enough away to reclaim “Les Miz” for a 21st century country.
* * *
Though it may be its own cliché, there’s a certain truth to France’s obsession with fairness. Pointing out when even the smallest of things is “pas juste” can seem like something close to a national pastime. This must be owed in part to the stories of uprising in the works of 19th century writers like Hugo, taught as essential literary canon. Because the people sang and marched, France is now supposed to be different. The law is supposed to be kinder, more progressive than, say, America where images of police brutality appear at regular news intervals. These things shouldn’t happen here, both French and non-French persons say to themselves.
It’s on these lofty dreams of the Republic that Ly opens his film and where he sets the viewer up for the consequent crash into reality.
In Paris, a pre-teen boy, Issa, wears the French flag like a cape to watch the national soccer team win the 2018 World Cup. A victory celebration erupts in the streets. Like Issa, most everyone we see is a person of color, and, we’ll learn, first or second-generation French (like the real-life local and national soccer star, Kylian Mbappé, whom they cheer on as he scores).
Over the joyous, unified crowd on the Champs-Élysées, the well-known title appears. It begs the question of where the misery might be. In response, the setting leaves the Elysian Fields to the city outskirts, the starkly separate “banlieue.”
The images of cramped poverty in run-down projects look nothing like the Paris of postcards, but the cinematography infuses the surroundings with its own beauty and warm light. The scenes are never overly gritty, with none of the gasping wretchedness that the stage musical Les Misérables engages in. This story is simply realistic and alive in each frame. Issa and friends fully inhabit Montfermeil, within their housing project known as Les Bosquets. Whatever their misery, it never drops into melodrama, even as, among the various competing micro-communities, an inevitable upheaval approaches.
Leading the way, we have the police Street Crimes Unit (Brigade anti-criminalité or BAC). Stéphane, our wide-eyed moral observer, rides in the backseat of the cruiser behind Gwada, playing the Good Cop who speaks several languages and switches across several codes, and Chris, the full-tilt Bad Cop who cracks with bitter sarcasm and a hostility he seems to relish as he delineates the various societal ills under their jurisdiction. Through this denser version of Training Day, we’re introduced to the other local authority figures.
The Mayor, as the name on the back of his customized French soccer jersey reads, controls the market stalls that hawk counterfeit goods. He serves as an informant when it suits his affairs. He also happens to be the only character in the film in a beret. By contrast, Salah wears traditional Muslim garb and speaks in metaphors out of his kebab shop as he recruits members of the community for the Muslim Brotherhood. He clashes with the man known as La Pince who wants to keep the order and peace because the only thing he’s selling is drugs.
Within this mix, the circus is in town. The Romani owners of the big tent have had their lion cub stolen. They rush to blame The Mayor and spit racial slurs at him as they brandish axes, demanding answers. Our trio of police intervene before any blood is shed and promise to find the animal.
We already know the culprit. Issa has the cub tucked away in a cardboard box. The incongruous presence of a lion in this urban landscape highlights a broader symbolism. Issa has captured the nascent king of the jungle; this allegedly powerless kid is trying to tame this not-yet ferocious beast. The stolen lion is just one of many indications that the young people are the ones who truly own these streets, the faction that will be always one step ahead of the adults acting in charge.
This idea is reinforced in another pre-teen in the milieu, Buzz, named for his drone.
As in the moment we lay eyes on the lion, Buzz’s high-tech device arrives like a curious revelation. We linger on the drone as it soars, rising like a tiny sun above the mess on the ground. Though Buzz first uses the drone to spy on neighbors (who then duly admonish him for it), it will soon become a defense. Like a gun shown in the first act that must go off by the third, the drone will have work to do later.
But even before we get there, the drone is an unexpectedly poignant representation of technology as freedom: youthful savvy as a discreet position of dominion. The drone’s camera is also Ly’s. The eye overhead is his knowledge and his power. It hovers there at a safe remove, allowing him to tell this tale that’s close to home.
Ly was born and raised in these same Paris suburbs to parents who emigrated from Mali. Likewise, he was childhood friends with several of the performers, Djebril Zonga who plays Gwada, and Nizar Ben Fatma who plays La Pince. Ly has admitted in interviews that he lifted certain passages straight from his formative years. Like the kids in the film, he got into his own trouble using a camera in this neighborhood.
As the police unit scours the streets, the worsening cop Chris applies more pressure. He harasses girls at a bus stop, he threatens residents with the French state’s notorious “fiche S” terrorist watchlist designation, and he busts down apartment doors when he’s refused entry.
“I’ll call the real police,” one of the mothers protecting her home from him says. Her threat is desperate though it still points to the fact that Chris is losing control of his beat. She could mean that she will call the other power players in the neighborhood, or that the existence of any actual enforcers of justice is a mere fantasy. Her reference to the “real” ones feels like a fleeting attempt to summon the true authorities. Someone, somewhere in the Republic, must be able to keep her safe.
Instead the law only responds with more violence. The cops close in on Issa and confront the kids. In the scuffle, the kids turn the police teargas back on the officers. A chase ends with Gwada firing a Flash-ball gun point blank into Issa’s face. Its large rubber bullet doesn’t kill, but knocks the boy unconscious, leaving him badly scarred.
As the rest of the kids scatter and the three cops reel in shock, they look up above their heads. The drone has filmed the entire incident. From a nearby window, Buzz realizes what he has.
* * *
Through the centuries, the popularity of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables has somewhat collapsed history. The story’s culminating events of the 1832 Paris Uprising get confused with the 1789 French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille mixed up with the clash at the barricade.
This was helped in worldwide imaginations by the stage musical that first premiered at a Paris theater in 1980, followed by the English-language version that asked if we could hear the people sing and then, a generation later, the 2012 Tom Hooper film featuring big name stars doing their best to make viewers ugly-cry. Most recently, a revival on the stage was cut short by the global misfortune that was 2020. To point out one of history’s strange rhymes, Paris was hit especially hard in 1832 by a cholera outbreak. The uprising that year sprang from a pandemic.
Ladj Ly has stated that Hugo lived in a different time but the suffering on these streets is the same as it ever was. He’s said the reality of the Paris suburbs is 10 times more cruel than what he portrays. Regardless of his calibration, the film was awarded the Cannes Jury Prize, a foreign-language category Oscar nomination, and even praise from France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who declared he was “upset by [the film’s] accuracy.”
Ly gives us his outrage, but he stops short of any single recrimination. In the fade-to-black post-script, he includes a quote from the original novel:
“Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”
Ly accuses each of the adults in his film in some way, with some more deserving of reproach than others. But any blame he places is accompanied by this measure of dignity that there’s no such thing as bad among them. Any justice that’s to be carried out will be shared by each interdependent member.
We’re spared a harsh social critique because of this connectedness. The characters’ quotidien exchanges center the film’s morality and form its own system of societal control and balance. The communal self-governance is present when the girls in the projects band together to reprimand Buzz for spying on them, explaining his violation which cows and subdues him. The lingering unity runs through the way the Mayor and Salah are willing to listen. It’s in the passing conversations, more drawn-out and more reasoned than is expected given the constantly percolating tension. It’s in the agreements, the jokes and even the common, nuanced slang of the ubiquitous French and Arabic hybrid greeting—“wesh.”
Despite efforts to treat the residents as “others,” the interconnectedness is felt even by the police. Gwada is so torn up about the shooting that he breaks into boyish tears when he returns home to his mother. Chris grows more frightened and fragile as his aggression mounts. When he tracks down the drone’s memory card in Salah’s shop, he finds himself surrounded by the other authority figures who’ve assembled there. Chris unleashes fury and shouts to all of them, “I am the law!” in the now universal declaration by lawmakers and law enforcers alike that means, “I am the only one who can break it.”
But the only feeling left hanging in the air is of Chris’ own misery and isolation.
That leaves the kids, the group set apart from the rest. As in Hugo’s novel, Ly’s sympathies ultimately lie with the revolutionaries. In this story, they’re the clever, neglected children of the banlieue. And they have the last word.
For their uprising, these uncounted young people lure the three officers into one of the apartment buildings and trap them. They’ve created their own barricade. Unlike 1832, this one is interior; they pile old shopping carts, furniture, and other pieces of detritus into the tight stairwell and bombard the officers with whatever else they have. Chris receives a bloody payback blow to the head; The Mayor, drawn into the commotion, is dragged down the stairs; La Pince’s car is firebombed.
We stop before a final confrontation. There is no reprieve nor resolution. The film ends on Issa carrying fire toward us. His light illuminates the billowing smoke and the resolve on his face. This child holds there like a subject in an exquisite classic painting. His ascendant figure waits, a historical reverberation and a harbinger that we may already be too late for. We won’t know the clash and we’ll never know who wins.
We are to stay within this suspension and keep it, until the next revolution sends the same old story into another century.