I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to tell people what a fantastic film this is, only for them to reply, “oh I hate musicals” Have no fears , the soundtrack is the least memorable aspect of the film. We do however revisit Montfermeil , the Paris suburb where Victor Hugo set part of his Les Misérables, now a banlieue, in essence the public housing sink estates where Paris homes it’s forgotten and displaced peoples.
Apparently, Macron was so appalled by the film that after watching it he launched an investigation into life in the Paris banlieues. It would be interesting to know which specific elements of the film appalled him, given his own publicly displayed racism , it would suggest an overwhelming lack of self- awareness to pretend that he he either didn’t know what was going on , or truly cared. Macron won the election on the neo liberal antifascist Le Penn ticket, but his own, more polite racism, was never far from sight. Remember his 2017 G20 summit comments that Africa was held back by “civilisation” problems and women having 7 0r 8 children.
It is twenty five years since I watched La Haine, the 1995 cinematic expose of life in the Paris banlieues , but perhaps, heretically, I prefer Les Misérables .Whist La Haine was a revelation , unlike Macron I am under no illusions of the day to day suffering that French state racism causes and the power the police have. In those intervening 25 years I’ve done stints volunteering in refugee centres in both Paris and Calais, the ever pervasive police presence was both menacing and intimidating, making a lot of the crucial volunteering work very difficult. The skill of director Ladj Ly is in his creation of a story of multiple layers, some of which I am still unpicking a month after watching it .One example being the humour and surrealism of the sub plot of the stolen circus lion cub, that lifts the film from mere documentary realism of grim life in the banlieues to a story that is both engaging and engrossing. The unbelievable element of the cub is actually based on a true experience Ly had as a kid living in the Paris projects, when a friend really did steal a lion cub from a visiting circus and try and keep it in his family apartment .The metaphorical symbolism of the captive cub is further expanded upon in the theological speech given by the ex -convict character Salah. In relation to the captive cub he postulates that Islam is against keeping animals in captivity, and that it should be free.
Salah is himself a signifier of the original ex -convict, Jean Vajean , who first meets orphan Cosette in Montfermeil. In 2020 the ex- drug dealing convict is now a Muslim preacher, a powerful force within the community which attempts to control its own criminality. Another subtext of the film is the growth of the influence of Islam in impoverished France, in communities heavily populated with migrants from ex colonies, the film clearly positions them as a force of both community empowerment and autonomous regulation .One can only speculate was it this fear of the allure and power of Islam is such communities that really appalled Macron.
The opening scenes of the film return to the national joy, pride and celebration of Frances victory in the world cup of 2018. For one night, Parisians are united in their national pride and victory, but just as Cinderella has one night to escape her captive drudgery and oppression, so do the boys of the banlieues. They must, like her, leave the party, to which they are welcomed and return to where they belong. Unlike her, there is no handsome representative of the sate to come to their rescue, certainly not those state representatives constantly in their lives , the police .Ly is quoted as describing the illusory nature of national football and the unifying identity it presents , in one interview he describes Football “as the new opium of the masses “ .One criticism of the film I have, is that it is directed completely from a male perspective. All the central characters are male, even the narrative of the world cup is gendered, it is only the boys that go to the celebrations and escape their captivity If football is men’s cultural opium, what is women’s? In Salah, the male preacher, religion is represented as an autonomous alternative to the power of the French secular state to police its own communities, but again this is from an entirely male perspective.
In 2019 representatives of the state and the community may come in many different guises, the new white policeman from Cherbourg is initially surprised that the town has a black mayor. A clear symbol of the neo liberal view of the shifting dynamics of individual power, yes you too could aspire to become the towns black mayor. The police teams’ boss is a woman. In reality , what do these token gestures of individual success mean to any real shifting power dynamic ? This is clearly played out in the film, particularly in the films climax, where the illusion of power and respect is literally trampled underfoot.
Ly has spoken publicly about his own experiences growing up in the banlieue, of dealing with racism in everyday encounters with the police and the power they hold in communities. With his own lived experiences, it would have been extremely easy for him to create police characters that are completely one dimensional, simplistic operator of racism and oppression. Like all the characters he has created they are just complex, who is simply good or bad? isn’t the more important question what can we learn about what has brought us to our actions , good or bad ? We are invited into the personal lives of the police, to witness their fragility and to consider that perhaps they, just as much as all those they have power over, are also victims of circumstance. The film concludes with the quote from Victor Hugo “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. there are only bad cultivators “
My experience of watching the film was raw and visceral. Coming out of London lockdown it was the first film I saw at a cinema, which was an emotional moment. One of the down sides of viewing alone is of course that you have no one to share that moment with. Les Mis emotionally punched me until I felt winded. Coming up for air I thought I would calm myself by sitting in the bougi cinema café, have a flat white, do some Twitter shit posting. The café, which a few months ago would have been full , was deserted, just me and an elderly black homeless woman, almost mummified in her blankets, sleeping peacefully, a perfect symbol; of the weird limbo world we currently inhabit. One moment you are in the normality of sipping a Campari in the darkened escape of a cinema screen, the next confronted with the reality of the covid crisis facing the homeless. One of the issues that I have with the liberal arts scene, is ultimately what is the purpose? Was Les Miserables created to make privileged people experience the privilege of merely feeing something? which feels awfully voyeuristic. Or is the purpose for us to do something? I would absolutely love to know what is in Macron’s report. How will he act? For me, it was somewhat easier, there was someone right there who needed my help. We may all be victims of our circumstances, but we also have free will to choose to get involved, or not.