Paris, 2018. Its the day of the World Cup Final, and the kids from the Parisian Banlieux are preparing to go into town to watch the game. Draped in Tricolours, their hopes are in Kylian Mbappé, the teenage French-Cameroonian striker. They find a pub in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and watch the game as part of a multi-cultural audience.
As France win, with the help of a goal from Mbappé, the crowds stream onto the Champs D’Élysées, in front of the Arc de Triomphe. Black-Blanc-Beur, this is a united nation, celebrating the national sporting success. What better example of the unity of post-revolutionary France, as depicted in the film made by that bloke who went on to make Cats?
The Montfermeil Banlieu, the following day. It is no coincidence that this is the area of Paris in which Victor Hugo set the original Les Misérables. Still dirt poor, but now largely populated by darker-skinned migrants from African families, the daily experience is one of nothing to do apart from dealing with the permanent petty harassment by the police.
It is Stéphane’s first day on the job. He has a slicked back hair do, so his colleagues call him Greaser, which doesn’t amuse him much. To acquaint him with his job, he is to sit in the back seat of the police car and watch Chris (white, barely concealed racist, lookalike of the young Vladimir Putin) and Gwada (black, grew up in the Banlieu, but what other jobs are available?) pick up local kids for no real reason.
Today, something has happened. Someone has stolen a lion cub from the local circus and there are online videos of Issa, one of the local kids. with said cub. The police squad goes into the area heavy handed which results in Issa being shot in the face with a flash ball. Worse, another kid, Buzz, has caught everything on camera with his drone camera. Buzz has gone on the run, taking a copy of the film with him.
So far, we have the potential for a pedestrian film about a team of mismatched cops (nice one, racist one and black one) who may have different perspectives, but need to keep “the team” together. On the other side, there are the kids in the banlieux and their “representatives” from the local mayor, Muslim Brotherhood, and drug dealers. Cue misunderstandings which shake old assumptions but do nothing to challenge the status quo? Actually, no.
What we instead get is something much more sophisticated. Although all the black characters are victims of racism, they have different class interests. The drug dealers are keen to do a deal with the cops, who will then turn a blind eye to their other activities. The mayor and Muslim Brotherhood leaders are prepared to use more radical language, but ultimately their main fear is “another 2005”, the year of the last banlieu riots, when the kids went beyond their self-appointed leaders and took to the streets.
Similarly, at first it seems that the 3 policemen are quite different to each other. Chris is clearly corrupt and at once stage screams, Judge-Dredd like, “I am the law”. Gwada is more sceptical, but ends up backing up the worst of Chris’s misdeeds. You spend most of the first half of the film expecting Stéphane to break rank. He starts off as the conscience of the film, clearly conflicted by how the cops behave and their abuse of the local kids. Yet within one day of the job he is thoroughly corrupted.
From beginning to end, the film constantly ratchets up an almost unbearable tension, which has you thinking that it can’t keep this up and must end with some sanitised, compromise ending. Maybe through Stéphane’s humanity it will show that everyone is a victim – both cops and kids? As it happens, when Gwada claims that he is the real victim of the shooting, Stéphane calls him out. Harrassment isn’t a side issue of how the banlieu cops behave. It is a central part of their job.
The film ends with a quote from Hugo’s Les Misérables: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators”. In a different film, this might be taken as an excuse for the cops – some of the things they did were bad, sure, but ultimately society is to blame. Yet somehow, the film manages to show both that we have a social problem that won’t be solved by nicer cops, while making it clear that the racist treatment of kids in the banlieux is carried out by real people who have names and addresses.
While I’m getting excited, a few more things. The cinematography is superb, with a series of overhead shots showing the structural alienation of the endless concrete monoliths in which banlieux kids have to live. And the use of lion cub theft as a crime that is both serious and laughable sets a great tone of kids who may do bad things but only because they have nothing better to do. They are not evil, and they certainly do not deserve the daily aggression which they must endure.
Best of all, Les Misérables expresses an unspoken rage that emanates from many kids forced to grow up in a hopeless situation. And it never falters, from the initial scenes of false national unity at the football to the final Sopranos-like ending. We don’t know exactly where this is going to end – and ultimately, we are offered the choice between three different options, none of them good.
In case you missed it, I absolutely loved this film, even if the subtitles sometimes don’t catch the fervour of the original (I’m sure no-one really shouted “beat it, you rascals”). It is angry without being dogmatic. It shows a desperate situation, yet gives people the opportunity to react within their limited possibilities. It doesn’t offer an easy way out, but when none is available, why should it?
This is what political film making should look like. You can show that things are bad, and you can show social struggles, and many great films are based on this. But Les Misérables tries something even more ambitious. It tries to raise a little hope from a desperate situation. It shows that even when we cannot win, fighting is better than not fighting. And it does this with such elegance that it is a true shame that it will lose the Best International Oscar to Parasite. Parasite is a really good film. This is a great film.