The wretched poor of Paris

Viewed in late 2020 the opening scene of Ladj Ly’s film Les Misérables looks like it was shot in an alternative reality writes Andy Stowe. Hundreds of football fans are crowded together in Paris celebrating France’s World Cup win. They scream ecstatically, hug each other oblivious to the existence of airborne viruses and maybe for a moment are tempted to believe that sport and national pride help people forget their differences. The fans are almost entirely black or North African, residents of the grim housing estates in which French councils warehouse migrants.

Ly unapologetically nicks his title from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. It would roughly be like a British director making a film about kids living somewhere bleak in 2020 and calling it Oliver Twist or The Road to Wigan Pier. His point is that the wretched poor of modern Paris have everything in common with the characters of Hugo’s book.

It lulls you into thinking it’s going to be a conventional cop film with the new man shocked and adapting to the ways of his rule-breaking team. Before long it shifts to an exploration of who really has power and authority in the housing estates.

The corrupt mayor doles out rubbish jobs to relatives and clients while extorting the market traders. The drug dealers think of themselves as the real bosses. The cops rule by fear and intimidation, getting their jollies from harassing and abusing the community they’re supposed to be serving. Surprisingly it’s the Islamists on the estates who are presented as being the most incorruptible and principled.

What these four power centres don’t quite get is that they are all equally loathed. Just when the cops think they have cowed the estate’s young residents they stage their own version of the insurrection in Hugo’s novel. It’s a brutal howl of rage more than an idealistic rising and they take a vicious retribution on the bent politician, the police and the dealers.

There are occasional moments of humour and the venality of some of the characters is leavened by glimpses of home lives which show they have good in them. This theme is echoed in the closing credits with a quote from Hugo “there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

Many of the performers seem not to be professional actors and this gives the filma sense of being grounded in the communities in which it was shot. Ladj gives them a platform to accuse the French state of being directly responsible for the deprivation, segregation, despair and brutality of their surroundings.

It’s an impressive, sometimes harrowing piece of work, but well worth trying to catch in the cinema or when it’s available for streaming.

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