Ladj Ly not only wants to be the truth-teller of French cinema, but a director of exciting, dynamic action as well. His concentration on Paris’ underprivileged immigrant populations, many of whom are forced to live in substandard housing that the government willfully neglects––then tears down to build gentrified housing for white and rich families––brims with an energy that involves swerving drone shots, French rap soundtracks, and a cast of characters who speak like every sentence is a declaration of will. By virtue (or dint) of the need to balance the emotional anger and complicated political webs of Parisian immigrant communities while remaining entertaining, his cinema’s politics often come across muddled and unclear.
Ly’s filming of apartment buildings in Les Indésirables (Bâtiment 5) is just as chaotic as it was in Les Misérables and drums up the claustrophobia of its narrow, dark, murky hallways, beginning with a long and frustrating sequence of residents carrying the coffin of an old woman who passed, having it bump and scrape along the corridor walls. The apartments themselves, however, are shown as open and in the light, areas that residents do their damndest to turn into loving, warm homes despite the government they live under failing them at every step to provide hospitable housing. The community in Les Indésirables itself is one that creates warmth and help from within. When a young Syrian refugee comes to live there, members help her get better at French and a man offers to drive her to her job when the bus strike occurs. The community members only have each other in a storm of targeted government policies––curfews, evictions, anti-loitering laws, and removal of homeless encampments.
Alexis Manenti, who played the brash and egotistical cop Chris in Les Misérables, returns as the equally egotistical but more “professionally restrained” Pierre, newly elected mayor of the film’s central Parisian neighborhood. His objective is one that many politicians share: cutting corners in “improving the community” through gentrification instead of public services and government-funded improvements. He also shields himself from nearly every criticism through locked doors, having his underlings protect him and calling the police every time he needs a job done on the streets. His direct counterpart is a young activist Haby (Anta Diaw), who rounds up her housing community to support a protest campaign and eventually help her challenge Pierre for mayorship.
Les Indésirables is a spiritual sequel to Les Misérables for its excavation of the Parisian immigrant neighborhoods as a point of constant conflict. Ly is, for the most part, much more somber and reined in here: he doesn’t focus too much on the direct, violent action conflicts as a trigger mechanism, instead showing the process-oriented political policy that inches towards the greater destruction of a vulnerable and underprivileged community. Ly’s filmmaking also tends to steep deeper into misery porn, particularly towards the end when eviction police show up. Drone shots that are used extremely effectively and uniquely in his direction of action––one sequence that starts at the rooftop of an apartment complex, zooms in on marching cops, and swerves to follow them inside a stairwell is incredible––are used at the end to milk the sorrow of the residents, lingering on images of them tossing their belongings out of windows and sounds of wailing and crying fill the scene, not to mention paired with a labored crescendo in the score.
It’s perhaps reasonable for Ly to be heavy-handed about these kinds of events considering he comes from these places. As he said during his TIFF intro, “It is my mission as an artist to testify and denounce my living conditions because I live there.” Such respectable sincerity about directorial choices render them tonally ungraceful. Ly wants to make a thumping statement with his endings while still having the audience hanging on a thread as credits roll. His standoff in the hallway of Les Misérables worked for reasons that showed the conflict between Paris’ cops and Black youth as an impasse, a constant specter of unresolved tension that will haunt the city well into the future. The ending of Les Indésirables, though, is ill-conceived and poorly directed in a way that turns it toothless in aims to imitate the ending of Do the Right Thing. Instead it plays like a drawn-out embarrassment that leaves all threads lingering in anti-climax. It’s a muddled, confused sequence that feigns insight and tries to leave a headache of an impression at all costs––belying a film that operated with more finesse for much of its runtime.
Les Indésirables premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.