The elevator hasn’t worked in years, so the men carry the casket down several flights of stairs. The hallway lights flicker at unpredictable intervals. The descent to the street, where the men will meet a hearse, is a treacherous one. At the sight of their hunched backs and the sound of barked instructions, a grieving woman asks: “How can we live and die in a place like this?” Welcome to Batiment 5, the setting of French Malian director Ladj Ly’s blistering feature Les Indésirables.
Ly knows how to stage scenes of visceral power, deftly moving between full-hearted flashes of community and taut, antagonistic ones laced with a dreadful foreboding. In Les Misérables, his 2019 Cannes Jury Prize-winning and Oscar-nominated film, the helmer examined tensions between working-class residents and a French anti-crime unit. He harnessed the propulsive energy of thrillers and blended it with the insistent morals of a political drama. Frames of that film are imprinted in my memory, but it’s the final one, a haunting moment of defiance and pain, that is most lasting.
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The world Ly dives into in Les Indésirables is not explicitly related to the one at the center of Les Miserables, but the two films do share a thematic throughline. They reflect the director’s ongoing thesis, an argument that resilience is not a sign of preternatural gifts but evidence of state failure. One cannot celebrate the survival of a community or relish in its strengths without asking why its people had to endure at all.
With that sentiment in mind, the opening sequences of Les Indésirables land differently. The orders to move strollers out of the way, the raised hands holding phones with the flashlight turned on, and the soft voices of the women reminding the casket bearers to be “gentle” hint at political abandonment. Later, when the mayor of the town dies unexpectedly, the tragedy marks the beginning of an even darker chapter in the lives of these public-housing residents.
A cabal of officials choose Pierre (Alexis Manenti), an affluent pediatrician, as the new interim mayor. His appointment is negotiated through back-alley meetings and confirmed by a dramatic vote in a gilded hall. Pierre’s relationship with the people of this French suburb is, at best, tenuous; he sees its mostly Black immigrants as an obstacle to his political ambition.
Haby (Anta Diaw), a young woman who works as an archivist at city hall, is Pierre’s opposite. She lives in Batiment 5 and serves as the president of the public housing association. On the days she’s not digitizing city planning documents, Haby helps her neighbors navigate complicated government applications. She files requests for unit upgrades and helps new migrants find homes.
Ly presents Pierre and Haby’s stories as two threads that intersect in increasingly explosive ways. The director builds tension with striking dexterity. Each scene with the stubborn mayor and the determined young woman is barbed and acidic, pregnant with the conflict inherent in their opposing goals and notions of integrity.
When Haby notices the plans to replace the public housing in her neighborhood have changed dramatically, she confronts Pierre, asking why residents weren’t informed of the change. She also notes that the new plans won’t accommodate larger families. Uncomfortable with the direct challenge, Pierre dismisses Haby and advises her to talk to his deputy, Roger (Steve Tientcheu). The pair meet again when the young woman, infuriated by the municipal’s neglect, runs against Pierre in the next mayoral election.
Diaw captivates as Haby, a character whose strength grows quietly over the course of the film. Her performance is all in the eyes and Ly, working with cinematographer Julien Poupard, engages in a more intimate observational style here. The camera is trained on Diaw’s face, allowing audiences to witness the intensity of her determination as the mayor levies harsh and increasingly retaliatory punishments against his poorest constituents.
Manenti, who played a belligerent police officer in Les Misérables, excels in a turn that requires more subtlety. His character still craves power and domination, but as a politician he must use different tactics. Pierre’s intentions are clearest in Manenti’s facial expressions, which shift nervously whenever the interim mayor is confronted with evidence of his brutish politics.
Although it’s an assured follow-up, Les Indésirables is not without its weak points. The contrivances start early and steadily weigh down the narrative just as the story, written by Ly and Giordano Gederlini, settles into its action. When the mayor dies at the beginning of the film, for example, his heart attack coincides with a planned demolition of one of the housing project buildings. The moment is calculated for maximum dramatic effect, but for this critic it drew a raised brow.
Ly has assembled a strong ensemble cast, which includes a compelling Aristote Luyindula as Haby’s closest friend, but the screenplay shortchanges them. Secondary figures here too often come off as afterthoughts. This is especially disappointing because as much as it’s a film about the antagonistic relationship between a town and its government, Les Indésirables also confronts the reality that political ideals and ethics can differ even among people with similar livelihoods and common goals.
Still, Ly and Gederlini weave in keen analysis about political manipulation, structural violence and community organizing — a perceptiveness that makes Les Indésirables resonate despite its flaws.
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