Hugo’s there?

Patrick Mulcahy on a 21st century Les Miserables

Here is something you learn from the Montfermeil-set urban drama, Les Misérables. When the temperature is 35 degrees Celsius, as it is near the start of the film, no one wants to go out, so there is little trouble. When it is thirty degrees Celsius, you get nervous. We have seen pavement-clearing, skin-blanching days in London too this past summer. Tens of thousands have protested in support of Black Lives Matter and to denounce the recent A-Level grade debacle – assessment by algorithm. Smaller gatherings have taken place too, defending statues (one protestor asking, “where can I buy alcohol?”) and challenging the science behind the wearing of facemasks. “3.5%” has been chalked into pavements in the street where I live – the percentage of the population required to perform non-violent direct action in unison in order to effect change. Something is fomenting, but we do not yet know what.

Co-writer-director Ladj Ly, French-born, but whose parents are from Mali, has made a film about police and immigrant tensions in Montfermeil, just outside Paris, that borrows its title from Victor Hugo’s 1863 novel. Its protagonists are three members of the SCU or Anti-Crime Unit, working the day shift. Openly racist cop Chris (Alexis Manenti), aka ‘Pink Pig’, insists on calling his new colleague, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), ‘greaser’, after wondering whether he put “engine oil in his hair”. “Don’t,” Stéphane replies, tersely. Gwada (Djebril Zonga) gives credibility to the team: he can engage with the immigrant population as one of their own.

Over the course of one day, they will search for a missing lion cub, Johnny, stolen from a circus by “a black boy in a grey tee shirt”. Young Issa (Issa Perica) posts a picture on Instagram, identifying himself all too easily to the police. However, in the course of being apprehended, Issa is blasted in the face with a flash ball, a device ordinarily used at long range. The incident is videoed by a drone operated by Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly, the director’s son), who then goes on the run. The team has a dilemma: take the child to hospital or stop the footage being aired?

The result is a tense and absorbing thriller that gives an insider view to life in Les Bosquets, the housing estate where much of the action is set. The SCU team negotiate the Muslim Brotherhood led by Saleh (Almamy Kanouté), who tries to get the African immigrant population to adopt Islamic values – obey their parents, avoid mischief – as well as a self-styled Mayor (Steve Tientchieu) who arranges for gilets jaunes helpers to use harnesses to deliver food in buildings where the elevator no longer works.

There are numerous stand-offs, but the best scene has Stéphane left alone by his colleagues to ask for Saleh. He tells Saleh about the missing cub. “A lion should not be put in cage,” explains Saleh. “A lion doesn’t need to be fed; it can hunt.” The conversation is less a critique of the practices of gypsy circus folk and more of France’s treatment of immigrants, put in under-resourced housing stock and given limited employment opportunities.

We think we know where the film is going, but Ly surprises us. There is a terrifying scene at the circus itself. There is also a coda, when the events of the day catch up with our trio. Ly filmed it in the building where he lived to keep costs down.

Victor Hugo set his novel in Montfermeil over 150 years ago. Ly makes the point that basic grievances remain. The population can be French, cheering for ‘les Bleus’ during the 2018 World Cup Final – a set piece that opens the film – but are otherwise treated with contempt. Ly quotes from the novel: “there are no bad plants or bad people, but only bad cultivators”, suggesting that the systems are wrong. In an interview, Ly described the population of Les Bosquets as ‘the original gilets jaunes’ – the anti-government protestors who took to French streets from October 2018 and brought much of Paris to a standstill. Only the demands of the immigrant population are less heard – they are more like a parallel ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.

Although Ly uses many of the conventions of the ticking-bomb police thriller, he does not aestheticize life on the street. He is not selling a soundtrack or making his cast urban style icons. We remember their faces more than their clothes. Ly gives everyone their due.

Les Misérables compares favourably with director Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film, La Haine, coincidently being re-released to mark its 25th anniversary. La Haine was exciting to watch and spoke directly to its audience; but Kassovitz subsequently recoiled from heightened social-realism and retreated into genre films and acting gigs. The 43-year-old Ly, who cut his teeth in documentaries, some of them directly aired on the internet to keep their integrity, is more social commentator than visual stylist. We can expect that he will stay true to the cause.

Les Misérables was released in UK cinemas in September and is available on demand. La Haine is at selected cinemas UK-wide.

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