Programme Notes: Les Misérables

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

'The movie’s called Les Misérables, and the people in it are having a hard time... It was important not to put judgement or take one side or the other and to make everyone human. Everyone is a part of humanity, whether they are good or bad' [1]

It would be easy for the anger at a system that has failed you repeatedly to overpower a film such as Ladj Ly’s blistering and tension laden tale of police brutality. Set against the backdrop of Montfermeil, a small commune east of Paris where Ly grew up and still lives to this day, Les Misérables is a message to the French government. It is a cry for help, asking that they no longer ignore the needs of everyday French citizens. The impact of the film has been such that upon viewing, the President of France was shocked by the depiction of the country and ordered an investigation into poverty in these small suburbs of France. What change and lasting effect Les Misérables will have is yet to be known but what can be said is that it is a film that has shone a light on the everyday injustices that are experienced by many and that can only be a positive.


While this is director Ladj Ly’s first narrative feature, he is no stranger to film. As a teenager, he would rarely be without a camera in his hand and has several documentaries to his name. His first being a documentary short titled 365 jours à Clichy Montfermeil that centred around the 2005 French riots. Following on from that his reputation as a guerrilla journalist grew to the point where he was the first point of call for locals to document any altercations with law enforcement. In fact, an incident that he filmed in 2008 was one of the first examples of police brutality going viral in France and led to the officers in question being suspended. 

Ly often refers to his camera as a ‘weapon’ and his unique style of filmmaking certainly lends itself to that idea. The bulk of Les Misérables is shot handheld which gives it a frantic energy as well as a distinct, documentary vibe. As the film progresses, the intensity and grittiness ramp up to the point where you can feel the tension pouring from the screen. This could not be more evident during the climax of the film as Pento (‘Greaser’ as he is not so affectionately named) comes face to face with Issa, the young man who has been brutalised by the three cops we have followed throughout. As he stands over the men who have wronged him with flaming bottle in hand, Pento pleads with Issa to stop. The structure and pacing that leads to this moment is incredibly powerful and that is a testament to Ly and his ability to transfer his vision to the big screen. The fact that this is where the film chooses to fade to black may be of annoyance to some but Ladj Ly does acknowledge this. He has been noted to say that he hopes that by leaving the ending open it will inspire thought and conversation around the issues the film deals with and in turn 'then maybe some real understanding can begin' [2]


With Les Misérables, the director sets out to capture the realities of modern France and his depiction of characters throughout the film are very nuanced. Ly paints an environment that indicates there is more to the story than what you can see in front of you. The aim is to humanise these characters whilst at the same time highlight the lack of support that has left them desperate and in turn pits these warring factions against one another. Les Misérables has garnered plenty of praise since its World Premiere at Cannes in 2019, where it won the Jury Prize. Heralded as the modern day La Haine (Dir. Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995), it is also no surprise to see comparisons with films such as Training Day (Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2001) and Do the Right Thing (Dir. Spike Lee, 1989). The latter especially feels similar in the way that we are introduced to a host of characters with the narrative building until it reaches an explosion of dissent and disorder.

Upon the news that Les Misérables would be nominated for Best International Feature film at the Oscars, Ly stated 'I believe in the power of cinema as a tool to challenge the politics and even sometimes to inspire revolution and above all bring real lasting changes.' Whilst Ly’s film focuses on his own history and experiences, the film is very much a universal piece of work that is startlingly relevant to the world, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement that has been amplified recently. More than ever, we need to actively fight for change and challenge the old systems that have been in place for far too long. In keeping with Ly’s sentiment, it is clear that cinema can be a wonderful escape for us all but it can also provide a voice for those who need it most.

Chris Kumar
GFF Programme Coordinator


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