IFFI 2019 Day 3: Les Miserables - An explosive film about miserable lives
The columnist writes about his experiences of Day 3 at the ongoing International Film Festival of India 2019 in Goa
Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is among the best novels ever written, and has spawned numerous adaptations over the years. Countless stories have also carried influences of Hugo’s enduring work. One such film played on day 3 of IFFI, Goa: Ladj Ly’s debut film, Les Miserables. It’s a film set in the aftermath of the French world cup win, and covers events occurring in the tumultuous neighbourhood of Montfermeil district in East Paris (this is where the Thenardiers from Hugo’s novel are said to live). Somewhere at the beginning of the film, three cops discuss Hugo’s book, with one making repeated mentions of Cosette, an important character in it.
It’s hard not to draw connections between the book and this explosive film. Both are stories about miserable lives. Much like the book, Ladj Ly’s film begins by showing a lot of ambition. The canvas seems pretty vast, as we are introduced to a time of celebration as the whole of the country is rejoicing about the world cup win. We see three patrol policemen, Chris (Alexis Manenti), Gwada (Djibril Zonga), and Stephane (Damien Bonnard). We see ‘The Mayor’, an influential local in the Montfermeil neighbourhood, who helps the cops. We see Salah, a reformed Muslim on whom the shadow of a previous incarceration still hangs. We see the children of the neighbourhood—young ones trying to get by on the little they have. The film shows great interest in painting a wide portrait, of presenting a variety of characters like Hugo’s novel. But soon, this becomes more restricted. From the leisurely, charmingly everyday-ish developments in the policemen’s days, without warning, the noose tightens—much like the space accorded to the policemen in the neighbourhood. Towards the end, as they get barricaded inside a cramped space, fighting for survival, it is impossible not to remember the barricade scenes in Hugo’s novel, which also happen at a time of class struggle. This film too captures this divide, of segregation, of not-so-harmonious communities and the tensions that rise within.
It’s a film about grime and the struggle of life in a modest neighbourhood, and yet, one that’s stunningly shot. The drone shots are particularly beautiful. Fascinatingly, they aren’t a gimmick here, and are an organic extension of a character in the story. That final altercation between the disgruntled teens and the cops is shot to give you a feeling of being cornered, of the helplessness of getting caught in a dangerous, seemingly inescapable space.
It’s the second film in two days (after yesterday’s Sorry We Missed You) at the festival that talks of the system, of the complex power dynamics that people are almost victims of. You see this between the policemen and their boss, between the policemen themselves, and later, between them and characters like ‘The Mayor’ and Salah. Finally, you see this happen even among the children. Another similarity the film shares with Hugo’s book is the importance it places on its setting. Above all, there’s also a reluctance to vilify anyone. Chris and Gwada are arguably negative characters, as are the Thenardiers in Les Miserables, but the film tries to present them more as products of their circumstances. You see this when Gwada is talking to Stephane at the end, trying to explain that years of doing what he is, has made him who he is. It’s quite fitting then that the film should end with a Victor Hugo quote: Remember this, my friends. There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.