This “Les Misérables” is not based on the Victor Hugo novel, but on a real incident of police brutality in France. It’s that nation’s submission for the 2020 international feature Oscar.
“I come from documentary filmmaking,” director and co-writer Ladj Ly said at an Envelope Live Q&A. “For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of cop watching. I’ve been filming the way cops interact with young people from the projects. One day, I filmed an actual police brutality. We showed it on the internet, and it got a lot of views, and as a result, the cops were suspended from duty.
“From filming that incident, I realized the power of images, and I wanted to make a fiction that would come from that specific incident, so that was the point of departure for my film.”
The 2019 Envelope Live screening series continued Dec. 2 at the Montalbán in Hollywood with a presentation of “Les Misérables” that included an on-stage interview of Ly (through interpreter Guetty Felin) by The Times’ Jeffrey Fleishman. Though the situation is incendiary, Ly does not paint in black and white.
“I wanted to create a space in my film where I could humanize each and every one of my characters,” he said of showing different sides of the three policemen. His heart, though, is likely with the low-income neighborhood that is the primary setting, as he grew up in and still resides in les banlieues of Paris.
“I wanted really for other people to see the reality of the projects, of this neighborhood in particular. Because the politicians don’t come, the media doesn’t come to this part of Paris. So it was important for me to show a different side, also, of the projects. So for the first 40 minutes, we get to immerse ourselves into this neighborhood, get to understand how it functions through the different characters.”
Part of Ly’s approach is meant to “leave a space for hope, to leave a space for conversation.”
“I invited the president of France to see the film, but he didn’t come. The president invited me to come to the White House of France. I refused the invitation and told him, ‘You should come to the projects and see the film.’ ”
Felin explained, “The president did not come to the projects, but Ladj and his team sent the president a DVD.... Finally he saw the film. He was so moved by it, he decided to get his ministers together to find solutions.”
Though it’s Ly’s first narrative feature, the film has also been noted for its structure and pacing, building to an intense third act.
“From the very beginning,” he said, “I knew I wanted to make the first part of the film almost documentary-style, because that’s what I’m used to shooting: hand-held and having this time that’s almost contemplative, living in the neighborhood and seeing how it is. And in the second part, raise the tension and then we get into this tension, and it‘s lowered again, and we raise it again.”
“My film is like a cry for help in a space that has been ignored for the last 30 years,” Ly said. “This is a film I’m addressing to the politicians of France.”