Jean Valjean’s nowhere to be seen in the new Les Misérables

We spoke with Ladj Ly about making a very loose adaptation the Victor Hugo’s classic in his hometown, working with non-actors and helping marginalized voices speak for themselves.

The suburb of Montfermeil is where Victor Hugo chose to set part of his novel Les Misérables, automatically making it a part of France’s cultural history. But Montfermeil in 2019 is a very different place. Like practically all suburbs of Paris, it’s home to a mainly impoverished, mainly immigrant population for whom the romantic dalliances of Jean Valjean have very little daily impact.

In Ladj Ly’s new film, big-city cop Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) accepts a transfer to Montfermeil to be closer to his son. He is immediately paired with hotheaded officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), who have developed a very particular relationship with the locals. Stéphane immediately butts heads with his more gung-ho, ethically dubious coworkers, who insist that they’ve figured out that their brand of justice is what keeps everything relatively calm. Things really come to a head, however, when a lion cub goes missing from the Romani circus in town. It seems local kids have swiped the cub, which is enough to ignite tensions. (When I question whether the lion cub subplot was an invention for the film, Ly slides over his cellphone and shows me a picture of himself as a teenager — sitting on a couch with a lion cub!)

Les Misérables is a curious thing: a film that feels explicitly political while also being a brisk and entertaining crime story in a way that many have attempted but few have really pulled off. One assumes that has a lot to do with its director. Ly grew up in les Bosquets, the area of Montfermeil depicted in the film… and, in fact, still lives there. A member of filmmaking collective Kourtrajmé, he has been active mainly in documentary, turning his camera on his neighbourhood and on injustices perpetrated by police. Les Misérables essentially stems from there.

In 2008, Ly filmed an act of police brutality in les Bosquets that led to the short film that he eventually expanded into Les Misérables. It goes without saying that the subject matter at hand is important to Ly (who also saw legal trouble a decade ago stemming from other videos of police brutality), but Les Misérables also had to be accessible.

“It was important to me,” says Ly. “I come from a documentary background and so, when I was thinking about my first feature, I immediately gravitated towards documentary techniques. I wanted a handheld camera that gets very close to people within a fiction framework, but then again, all the stories I tell in the movie are real. Everything in this story is inspired from real life, from the stuff about the World Cup to the story of the lion cub that was stolen, as far as that final scene. All of it really happened, to some degree — things that happened to me or around me. When you direct, it helps to know something well and to know that you want to recreate it. That certainly made many things easier for me. We shot it in six weeks. The end scene took two days to shoot! My way of working is very dynamic. I always have two cameras shooting and it never really stops!”

Without getting into spoilers, the film’s last scene features more than 50 people piling into the narrow corridors of a project. It’s a scene that clearly can’t be faked and for which sets built to accommodate equipment would immediately stick out.

“We had 50 kids and the whole technical team crammed into that tiny space,” says Ly. “But, as I said, that’s something that really happened to me. The final scene is in the staircase of my building. I live on the ground floor! That scene really happened in that spot. I heard some noise, I went out into the hallway and I saw, basically, what you see in the movie happen in front of my eyes. It helps when you’re telling stories that happened to you.”

Similarly, Les Misérables is cast almost exclusively with non-actors. Only the three leads have a background as an actor, and nearly everyone else is from the community in which the film is set. “I like to work with non-actors because there’s something fresh and spontaneous about it,” says Ly. “On the other hand, it’s a challenge to say we’re going to take these people who have no experience and think we’re going to transform them. But I was interested in the idea that it was also their story, on some level. That’s what makes the movie, to my eyes, very precise and realistic. It’s not about good or bad. It’s more complicated than that!

“Everyone has their reasons,” he continues. “These days, we mostly hear about the banlieue through clichés, through politicians and the media. Most of the time, people have no idea what the banlieue even is. They’ve never even been there. It’s important to try and explain that it’s more complex than that. You have to get them to look at it different. When I see the way people look at the film — especially overseas, since there’s such a specific image of France — they’re just petrified (laughs).”

The film immediately sparks comparison to Training Day, if only because the narrative set-up of a rookie or newbie going out on the field with more experienced, less by-the-book cops are similar. Les Misérables is not quite as dark or as nihilistic as Training Day gets, but Ly remains flattered by the comparison.

“I don’t mind it. It’s a good reference!” says Ly. “I liked Training Day a lot and there are some similarities. It’s a good movie, but it does take some pretty American twists! (…) My cinema — or at the very least, the cinema I want to make — is about real topics, about minorities, about neighbourhoods. We’re not often granted the right to speak. People talk for us, make movies for us. It’s important for me and people like me to tell new stories, and for audiences to see new faces. In French cinema, it’s always the same stories, the same faces and the same writers. What I want to do is break that mold and do something new.

“In that respect, I created a cinema school called l’École Kourtrajmé in Montfermeil,” he continues. “It’s been open for a year and we’ve trained about 30 young people, produced five shorts and are developing two features. We keep growing. We started with three programs, now we have five. But the idea really is to train young people to make movies. We’re in the process of opening five schools in Africa: Sénégal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Morocco. The end goal is to open schools all over the world and give them the keys so they can tell their own stories. We all have stories to tell. But these days, getting into film schools, getting your hands on equipment, it can be complicated and expensive. So we’re trying to offer that opportunity to everyone.” ■

Les Misérables opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 10. Watch the trailer here: