Will Higbee, University of Exeter
For over a quarter of a century, the poorer suburbs of larger French cities (especially those suburbs surrounding Paris) have occupied a specific place within the French cinematic imaginary. In the beur cinema of the 1980s and a variety of films since the mid-1990s, the run-down, multi-ethnic housing estates of the banlieue featured as emblematic sites of exclusion, alterity, and social fracture. In the mid-1990s, a cluster of independent releases depicting marginalised youth in the disadvantaged urban periphery, of which Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) was undoubtedly the most prominent, led French film critic Thierry Jousse  to announce a new genre in French cinema: the banlieue film. Since then, and following on from the crossover success of La Haine, many of French cinema’s most critically acclaimed social dramas — Wesh-wesh: qu’est ce qui se passe? (Ameur-Zaïmeche, 2001), L’Esquive (Kechiche, 2003), Entre les murs (Cantet, 2008), Bande de filles (Sciamma, 2014) and Divines (Benyamina, 2016) — have taken place in the working-class communities of the banlieue.
To this list of key works of French social and political cinema can be added Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables (2019). Made for a modest budget of little over €1 million, Les Misérables defied expectations for the debut feature of a largely unknown independent French director by winning the Jury Prize at Cannes and four Césars (including Best Film), attracting over two million spectators in France and beating Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019) to the French nomination for Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Oscars. Like Kassovitz’s film almost twenty-five years earlier, to which Ly’s film is inevitably compared, Les Misérables became a film événement, exciting commentary that moved beyond film review pages to attract wider media attention and provoke commentary from French politicians. Just as Prime minister Alain Juppé allegedly arranged a screening of La Haine for his cabinet in 1995 , so President Macron claimed in 2019 to have been ‘shaken by the accuracy’ of Les Misérables .
Although it was his debut feature, Ladj Ly had gained experience as a director and producer of numerous short films, working as part of the Paris-based Kourtrajmé collective. Founded in 1994 by Romain Gavras (son of director Costa-Gavras, whose own work made a significant contribution to French political or ‘civic’ cinema of the 1970s) and Kim Chaperon, the collective aimed to create a space in which a diverse group of young creatives, usually excluded from the traditional channels of film, TV and media production, could make shorts, documentaries, music videos and eventually feature films: “We were a group of mates, and we always said that would make our own films without anyone’s help, because we understood that if we waited for funding or for the approval of a producer, we weren’t going to get anywhere.”  Ly joined Kourtrajmé in 1996 as an actor before moving behind the camera to direct shorts and, eventually, documentary. His first short, 365 jours à Clichy-Montfermeil (2006), documents Ly’s personal response to the riots that took place in his own neighbourhood in 2005 after two teenagers were electrocuted while hiding from police in the transformer of an electricity substation in neighbouring Clichy-sur-bois. One of his earliest short fictions, Go Fast Connection (2009) “satirised the ultra-serious tone of news reports from the banlieues” as perilous no-go zones, inhabited by delinquent youths of immigrant origin . Ten years after 365 jours à Clichy-Montfermeil, Ly wrote and directed the short fiction Les Misérables (2017), whose critical success allowed him to develop it into his debut feature in 2019, using many of the same actors from the original.
The feature-length version of Les Misérables chronicles life on Les Bosquets in Montfermeil, a working-class estate 10 miles north-east of central Paris where Ly was raised by his Malian immigrant parents and still lives today. Tensions on the estate reach a breaking point over two scorching days in the summer of 2018, a narrative set-up which invites comparison with Spike Lee’s Do the right thing (1989).
The film opens against a backdrop of collective euphoria around France’s victory in the 2018 football World Cup. Draped in the tricolour, Issa (Issa Perica), a youth from Les Bosquets, journeys from the suburbs to join the multi-ethnic crowds in central Paris watching the final and celebrates deliriously with the mass of supporters after the French team’s victory. This narrative prelude offers a fleeting moment of (national) unity and Republican communitarianism that Les Misérables ultimately shows to be illusory, in sharp contrast with violence and division on the estate.
Though the title may initially suggest (yet another) cinematic adaptation of one of French literature’s most celebrated works, Ly’s Les Misérables seems to offer only tangential connections to Hugo’s French literary epic, for Montfermeil is the location of the inn run by the villainous Thénardiers in the classic novel. This association is evoked by the trio of officers from La brigade anti-criminalité (or la BAC, a specialist anti-crime unit of the national police force) as they patrol the estate in their car, when brigadier Chris (Alex Manenti) makes the casually racist remark that today Cosette would be called “Coozette” and her mother would work at the local post office. More directly, Ly closes his film with a quote from Hugo’s novel: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators,”  illustrating that the real common ground between novel and film comes less from adaptation or location than the respective authors’ sense of indignation at the injustices imposed on society’s most vulnerable by the very systems that are supposed to support and protect them.
Ladj Ly undoubtedly shares a passionate desire to expose inequality and counter misrepresentation of the banlieue with such filmmakers as Malik Chibane (Hexagone, 1994) François Richet (Etat des lieux, 1995), and Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche (Wesh-wesh, 2001), who, like him, originate from the working-class communities of the urban periphery that they portray in their films. Nevertheless, the aesthetic strategy and approach to narrative engagement in Les Misérables is arguably closer to that of La Haine, by filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz, who has been criticised in certain quarters for offering a privileged outsider’s view of social exclusion and violence in the banlieue . Both films’ narratives take place over a condensed time period during which tensions between the youth of the cité and police escalate, culminating in explosive violence. Both films explore social fracture, racism and police brutality through a spectacular visual style and familiarity with popular genre cinema that aims to entertain as well as educate its audience. Les Misérables documents life in the cité at street-level and while floating high above the estate, in a way reminiscent of the fluid, highly mobile camerawork of La Haine. In terms of genre, however, Les Misérables plays more like a police procedural than a social realist drama, as the trio of Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) race to locate the drone recording that will implicate them in the bavure that disfigured and nearly killed Issa. In this respect, Ladj Ly, like Kassovitz before him, has a professed debt to (African-) American cinema (Spike Lee, the Hughes Brothers, John Singleton) rather than the French auteur tradition. Indeed, the films of both directors have been compared to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) for their focus on inter-ethnic tension, their explosive narratives in a disadvantaged urban setting, and their exploration of the response of ethnic minority youth to police brutality. The narratives of both films were, moreover, inspired by real-life instances of police brutality against youth of immigrant origin in the banlieue (for Kassovitz, the killing of Makome M’Bowle in police custody in 1993; for Ly, the deaths in Clichy-sous-Bois, mentioned above, of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré as they evaded police). Finally, both La Haine and Les Misérables have been reproached for offering limited space for female voices, unlike L’Esquive (Kechiche, 2007) or, more recently Bande de filles (Sciamma, 2014) and Divines (Benyamina, 2016), which explicitly challenge this masculinist bias.
The key distinction between Les Misérables and La Haine comes in how Ly chooses to enter the world of the urban periphery and the point-of-view from which community and events are mediated. From the opening sequences of La Haine, we have no doubt that our view of the cité will be filtered through the trio of multi-ethnic banlieusard youth of Vinz, Saïd and Hubert. Think, for example of Hubert’s opening voice over, or the way the camera introduces the aftermath of the rioting in the estate through Saïd’s opening eyes and direct stare at the line of CRS riot police before him. In contrast, whilst we experience the euphoric celebrations on the streets of central Paris in the prelude largely from Issa’s point of view, our entry into Les Bosquets comes from the perspective of a different kind of outsider: Stéphane, a rookie officer to the BAC, newly arrived from the provinces. We are introduced to the estate through his POV from the backseat of the patrol car, as rookie and spectator are briefed about crime in Les Bosquets by seasoned BAC officers: the corrupt, hot-headed Chris and his partner Gwada, who originates from the estate but accepts Chris’ unconventional methods — whether working with local gangsters or physically harassing young women at a bus-stop whom he suspects of smoking a joint — as the only viable way to police it. As the trio return briefly to the local police station there is a chance encounter with Issa, who is being collected by his exasperated father after having been arrested for petty theft. Ly includes a deliberate exchange of looks between Stéphane and Issa whose significance will only become apparent later in the film but which, in this early sequence, appears as a fleeting connection of little consequence, with Issa being located for the most part at the extremities of the frame.
Upon leaving the commissariat, Ly cuts to the second POV through which he will introduce us to Les Bosquets: the video drone operated by Buzz, (played by the director’s own son Al-Hassan Ly). Buzz spends his time filming activities on the estate from a viewpoint which, although shot from a different angle and driven by more personal motives, effects a form of detached surveillance not so different from Stéphane’s view of the estate from the inside the patrol car. These shots from the drone/Buzz’s perspective (such as a brief insert from high above the local market) encourage us to question not only the consequences of individual interactions within the cité but how the network of social relations within Les Bosquets connects with a broader set of political, economic and social forces that shape public attitudes towards and perceptions of the banlieue and its inhabitants. More specifically, it draws us to Ly’s critique in Les Misérables and his earlier short films of the acceptance by the mainstream media and wider French society of brutal policing tactics within the banlieue as “necessary” to control the lawless threat from within.
Initially, Buzz’s activity plays out as voyeurism for personal gratification as he films through the window of a neighbour while she gets dressed. However, his footage gains a far greater currency on the estate when he captures Gwada discharging a flash-ball gun that seriously injures Issa, prompting police and local gangster Le Maire (“The Mayor,” played by Steve Tiencheu) to pursue Buzz for the footage. Many banlieue films of the 1990s (again, and most notably, La Haine) were concerned with the misrepresentation of the banlieue by the mainstream media (newspaper articles, TV news reports). Two decades on, Les Misérables is attentive to the fact that, whilst traditional media outlets still have the power to shape public opinion, they also compete with user-generated digital images and video content (including so-called citizen journalism) that is largely out of their editorial control. When challenged by one of the young women at the bus stop, who records his harassment of her friend, Chris destroys the evidence by hurling the phone to the ground. Later, Chris explains to one of his contacts in Les Bosquets that the problem is not that Gwada shot the flash-ball at Issa but that the incident was captured by a drone and thus risks implicating his team in an act of police brutality that might otherwise have been covered up. At any rate, once Chris has obtained the memory card on which Buzz’s drone footage was recorded, he sends a clearly traumatised Issa home with instructions to say simply that he slipped when asked by others how he sustained his injuries.
In a very real sense, Ladj Ly’s first documentary, 365 jours à Clichy-Montfermeil, and a subsequent incident of police violence that the director filmed and posted online (leading to suspension of the officer in question and legal action against Ly) are examples of the democratization of digital means of production and alternate platforms as potential sites of resistance to the hegemonic narratives of mainstream politicians and media that the director explores in Les Misérables. (In one memorable image, used repeatedly as a promotional still, Gwada exits the patrol car against a backdrop of a mural with a black youth pointing a camera as if holding a gun). On the other hand, Ly also acknowledges the limitations of digital tools of resistance in this struggle. Buzz captures footage of the police bavure unintentionally, while local youths from the estate post images of themselves on social media that inadvertently perpetuate the stereotypical images of delinquent banlieusards foregrounded by the mainstream media. In the latter instance, rather than a means of resistance that can hold those in power to account, social media becomes another form of surveillance as Chris uses it to discover who stole a precious lion cub and berates the youths from the estate as abrutis (“imbeciles”) for posting images of their escapades on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat.
By alternating between the street level view of Stéphane and other BAC officers, on the one hand, and Buzz’s detached surveillance drone, on the other, Ly offers a multiple, layered, and nuanced perspective of Les Bosquets and its inhabitants. Appearances, we soon learn in Les Misérables, can be deceptive. What initially appears as a random act of social dysfunction or illegal activity (a shopping cart brought inside a residential tower block and taken to the floors above) is, in fact, an act of community care: transporting food and provisions to residents on the upper floors of a building where the lift is broken. Our initial engagement with the “reality” of life on the estate in Les Misérables (and thus our broader understanding of the banlieue) is constantly challenged. As Adam Mars Jones notes in his review of the film, Issa’s mother refuses to let Chris search the flat without a warrant but allows Gwada to enter: “The difference is total, and not just because his [Gwada’s] skin colour is similar to the family’s. A richness of life is revealed behind the front door that Chris could never see, […] A roomful of women is engrossed in what looks at first glance to be some sort of gambling game but is in fact a tontine, an interest-free community loan scheme that helps families with big expenses like a wedding or a visit home.” 
Chris and Gwada’s boastful claim to Stéphane that only they can police the neighbourhood effectively because of the respect they have earned over years is shown to be an illusion. Stéphane retorts that fear, not respect, allows them to control the streets and, as the final sequence clearly shows, this balance of power is far more fragile than Chris, in particular, imagines. And it is not only the police who deceive themselves. The Mayor’s status as the local caïd is similarly exposed in the final moments of the film as Issa and other youth from the estate respond to his angry demand as to who gave them “permission” to riot, by raining blows down on his body with lead pipes and rubber cables.
And yet, despite the film’s simmering anger about police brutality and the inequality suffered by the residents of Les Bosquets — especially its youth — Ly refuses to set up a Manichean struggle between police and banlieue youth, like those in La Haine or Jean-François Richet’s incendiary Ma 6-T va crack-er (1997). Instead, the director shows the toll that a brutal system of policing takes on the officers as well as the residents of Les Bosquets; young and old, powerful and apparently powerless. In so doing, Les Misérables offers a complex portrait of the tensions that exist between police and banlieusards and within the community itself. In a reflective sequence before the film’s final act, Ly depicts the impact the day has had on all his principal characters: a traumatised Issa sits isolated in the wasteland of the estate; Stéphane returns to his empty apartment in a new city; Salah sits alone deep in thought in his restaurant; Chris, in a surprising switch, returns to the domestic sphere of his mixed-raced family, with his pregnant wife and the routine of sending his young daughters to bed; Gwada struggles to contain his emotions as his mother asks about his day; The Mayor defies his persona as the ruthless boss of Les Bosquets by patiently guiding Jojo — a young man with learning difficulties, whom Gwada encountered earlier in the film — safely across the estate. The montage echoes Ly’s claim in an interview that accompanied the film’s release in the UK that the misérables of the film are “all of us.” 
Whilst tensions between the youth of the cité and local police clearly exist, power struggles and rivalries play out within Les Bosquets; between organized crime gangs, disenfranchised youth, grands frères and police who vie for control of the estate to advance personal agenda rather than the good of the locals. (In contrast, local Muslim leaders are the sole group shown to be acting in the interests of the wider community). Conflict within the estate also falls along a generational fault-line. By the end of the film, the teenagers have banded together in violent revolt against the police and also against the estate’s internal power blocks (such as The Mayor) who attempt to coerce and exploit them. As Salah, a former gangster who has turned to Islam and serves as the only trusted broker between youth and elders presciently warns Stéphane: “I want to trust you but you won’t escape their anger.”  In the film’s final act, the resentment and anger of the youth of Les Bosquets escalates into an all-out assault on all forms of estate authority. The seemingly innocent scenes of kids cooling off in an oversized paddling pool, trading playful insults with Chris and drenching the officers with water pistols, gives way to a darker, more violent assault on police, local criminals, and The Mayor. The youth riot in the stairwell of a tower block until a final standoff between Stéphane and Issa returns us to their initial, seemingly inconsequential, exchange of looks in the police station. Stéphane trains his gun on Issa, pleading with him not to launch the flaming Molotov cocktail he holds aloft. The film ends not with the explosive impact of that Molotov cocktail or a gunshot (as in La Haine) but with an iris shot of an impassive Issa, seemingly frozen at the moment of decision, which fades to black and the quote from Hugo. Ly’s choice to end the film in this way effectively retreats from a definitive act of violence that might endorse the prevailing media stereotype of delinquent banlieue youth that he works so hard to challenge. Instead, we are left with the image of alienated banlieue youth on the cusp of revolt for reasons that we, as spectators, can understand if not endorse. This framing of Issa, and the final quote from Hugo, that there are no bad plants, only bad cultivators, demands that the spectator reflect on the institutional brutality, violence and inequality that led to this seemingly inexorable standoff and what might be required for a different outcome. For his part, and despite holding open the faintest glimmer of hope for reconciliation, Ly remains guarded: “I want to be optimistic about the future, but sadly, it would not surprise me if in another 15 years, some other filmmaker makes their own Les Misérables because little would have changed.” 
Perhaps the real cause for optimism can be seen in the integrity of Ly’s own actions. Despite the breakout success of Les Misérables catapulting Ly into the spotlight as one of independent French cinema’s most sought-after talents, the director remains committed to L’Ecole Kourtrajmé, a free, inclusive film school founded in 2018 that trains students at sites in Montfermeil, Marseilles and, most recently, Dakar. Ly’s commitment to educating a new generation of filmmakers outside the usual spheres of development for French cinema puts into practice the director’s desire for more diverse voices and experiences on both sides of the camera, and for representations of social inequality and the banlieue that might help break the cycle of violence embodied by the final confrontation between Issa and Stéphane in Les Misérables.
Ladj Ly, Les misérables, 2019.
1. Thierry Jousse, “Le banlieue-film existe-t-il?” Cahiers du cinéma, 492 (1995), p.37.
2. Ginette Vincendeau, La Haine (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005), p.84
3. Charles Bremner, “Emmanuel Macron shaken by French ghetto film Les Misérables,” The Times, November 20, 2020, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/emmanuel-macron-shaken-by-french-ghetto-film-les-miserables-l087990m7 last accessed 15 November, 2021.
4. Ladj Ly, “OCS Story: Ladj Ly, director of Les Misérables,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wGt-8yVyfE last accessed 21 November 2021.
5. Elena Lazic, “Film is a tool. It changes things,” Sight & Sound 30/5 (2020), p.38.
6. “…il n’y a ni mauvaises herbes ni mauvais hommes. Il n’y a que de mauvais cultivateurs,” Victor Hugo, Fantine: Les Misérables (Tome 1), (France: Books on Demand, 2019), p.171.
7. Will Higbee, Mathieu Kassovitz (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p.71.
8. Adam Mars-Jones, “Formez vos bataillons: Ladj Ly’s new film, in the tradition of La Haine,” Times Literary Supplement, 6128 (2020), p.17.
9. Ladj Ly quoted in Elena Lazic, “Film is a tool. It changes things,” Sight & Sound 30/5 (2020), p. 39-40.
10. “J’ai envie de te faire confiance mais vous n’éviterez pas la colère et les cris.” 1:09:49.
11. Ladj Ly quoted in Tambay Obenson, “‘Les Misérables’: writer-director Ladj Ly Hopes to Inspire Revolution with His Feature Debut,” Indiewire, January 10. https://www.indiewire.com/2020/01/les-miserables-ladj-ly-interview-1202201131/ last accessed 12 December 2021.
Ameur-Zaïmeche, Rabah. Wesh-wesh: qu’est ce qui se passe? 2001. 83 minutes. France.
Benyamina, Houda. Divines. 2016. 105 minutes. France.
Cantet, Laurent. Entre les murs. 2008. 128 minutes. France.
Chibane, Malik. Hexagone. 1994. 90 minutes. France.
Kassovitz, Mathieu. La Haine. 1995. 98 minutes. France.
Kechiche, Abdellatif.L’Esquive. 2003. 117 minutes. France
Lee, Spike. Do the right thing. 1989. 120 minutes. US.
Ly, Ladj. 365 jours à Clichy-Montfermeil. 2006. 26 minutes. France.
Ly, Ladj. Go Fast Connection. 2009. 26 minutes. France.
Ly, Ladj. Les Misérables. 2019. 104 minutes. France.
Richet, Jean-François. Ma 6-T va crack-er. 1997. 105 minutes. France.
Richet, Jean-François. Etat des lieux. 1995. 80 minutes. France.
Sciamma, Céline. Bande de filles. 2014. 113 minutes. France.
Sciamma, Céline. Portrait de la jeune fille en feu. 2019. 122 minutes. France.