The critically acclaimed new film by Ladj Ly, Les Misérables, opens with a scene of teenagers from the disadvantaged suburbs of Paris excitedly heading into the city to celebrate the French team’s 2018 World Cup win. By the film’s end, these same youth are mounting the barricades – enacting a gesture that’s deeply resonant in French history – and taking up homemade arms against the police, one of the few representatives of the French state they ever see. Ly’s film was a prizewinner at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and will represent France in the Oscar’s foreign film category.
Ly states that his film is about the misery that binds together two groups of protagonists. More profoundly, the film is about the French Republic and its failure to fulfil its obligations toward its most vulnerable citizens.
Shot in Clichy-Montfermeil, the neighbourhood where Ly grew up and where the November 2005 riots in France started – Les Misérables reveals a landscape neglected by the state. We see kids playing in an impromptu summer camp without adult supervision, girls waiting for a bus that never comes, an Islamic brotherhood of power brokers, and a “mayor” and his acolytes who, even if ineffective, are in closer contact with residents than the town’s duly elected mayor, wherever he or she may be.
The neighbourhood is run-down but not derelict, and while the film traffics in many of the stereotyped images that define the genre of the banlieue film, it has the merit of showing a city where a diverse group of residents do what they have to get by.
Like one of the characters in the film who uses a drone camera to silently observe life on the streets, Ly has been filming events in his neighbourhood since he was a teenager. As noted by a number of reviews, the source for the film is documentary footage Ly shot in 2008 of police violence. However, it’s more instructive to compare Les Misérables to Ly’s 2006 documentary 365 jours à Clichy-Montfermeil, filmed in the year after the 2005 riots.
365 jours stands out for its multifaceted view of life in the suburbs. It shows the anger and violence that erupted following the tragic deaths of two teenage boys, Zyed and Bouna. It also highlights efforts of neighbourhood adults to stop the violence, and the steady breakdown in communication with local and national authorities who disparaged the outrage in brutally condescending terms.
“Stop barking, I’ll teach you to be polite”, snapped Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of the Interior at the time, while addressing a group of residents during a visit to the neighbourhood. Ly shows us also President Jacques Chirac, statesmanlike as he speaks at Elysée Palace in the midst of the events. The uprising reflects “a crisis of meaning, a crisis of direction,” he states, adding that it’s also “a chance to belong to the French community.”
A sense of promise
365 Jours à Clichy-Montformeil begins with archival footage that recalls the optimism that accompanied the development of the surburban projects in the early 1960s. Indeed, it is often forgotten that at the time these mid- and low-rise estates were lauded as “modern” state-led solutions to the problems of overcrowding and insalubrious housing that plagued major urban centers in mid-century. The riots that took place in late 2005 in more than 250 cities in France now stand as an emblem of what these districts have become, and also of the failure of the state to uphold its obligations during a period of prolonged economic transformation.
Ly does not linger on the violence, however. To the contrary, 365 jours ends with a sense of promise. The filmmaker shows residents of multiple backgrounds mobilising, building a movement, imagining a renewed France that embraces both their presence and their demands. “There is white France, Arab France, ratatouille France,” a middle-aged man of African origin declares during a local demonstration. “There is only mixed France.”
The film ends with members of an association created in Clichy-sous-Bois following the 2005 events enthusiastically marching to the French Senate to deliver their “cahiers des doléances”, a book of complaints collected from people in 120 cities across the country. Such “cahiers” are another deeply historic symbol, as they were first gathered in 1789 at the order of King Louis XVI.
“One thing is certain,” the vice-president of the association says as he hands the cahier over to the Senate officials, “the French model is broken; it’s up to us to repair it”. In this he echoes President Jacques Chirac, who solemnly vowed in his speech to undertake ambitious efforts to correct the imbalances that underlay the unrest.
Thirteen years later
In Les Misérables, Ly asks what has become of that vision 13 years later. Two of the key protagonists of the film, the good cop and the bad, incarnate what Ly suggests is our choice. “Pento,” the rooky cop just arrived from Normandy, wants to play by the rules and also, in a sense, live up to the promise of the French Republic. Chris, corrupt and cynical, tries to convince him there’s no point. In his view, committed social engagement is no more than a quaint holdover from an earlier time.
In its high-stakes, dramatic ending, Les Misérables warns against the consequences of such disaffection, and of the importance of renewing again, through meaningful social acts, the promise of the republican pact.