It would be easy to mistake Ladj Ly’s “Les Indésirables” for a direct sequel to his 2019 debut “Les Misérables.” Beyond possessing a similar title, some of the same cast, and a shared focus on the oppressive living conditions of Paris’ most vulnerable immigrant communities, Ly’s second narrative feature picks up where his first left off: In the crowded stairwell of a suburban housing project as its residents ask themselves, this time aloud: “How can we live and die in a place like this?”
The fade-to-black in the final moments of Ly’s Cannes breakout suggested that loss was imminent, and the ominous drone shot that begins his more expansive sophomore effort ultimately arrives at the sight of a corpse in a coffin. But if these equally combustible films are set in different buildings, and in different communities (with the town of “Grand-Bosquet” standing in for Montfermeil), they’re so bound together by the raw immediacy of their camerawork — and by the insistent clunkiness of their melodrama — that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Much like “Les Misérables” before it, “Les Indésirables” is a series of riveting setpieces that are strung together with a mess of exposed wires, and much like “Les Misérables” before it, “Les Indésirables” can be easy to forgive for its contrivances because Ly’s anger is so palpable, his vision so viscerally lived-in, and his widescreen cinema so capable of galvanizing suffering through spectacle (a mixed blessing). Only this time he’s painting on a broader canvas, and the cracks in his brushstrokes are harder to ignore. And while recent events have further reaffirmed the urgency of the story Ly tells here, the way that Grand-Bosquet goes up in flames in “Les Indésirables” is engineered in a way that seems more like arson than it does the stuff of a social conflagration.
The story begins with a fictionalized version of something Ly remembers from his own life: The progressive mayor of a French commune dying suddenly on the precipice of his greatest achievement. In the film, he suffers a heart attack upon detonating the controlled demolition of a dilapidated tower block he was hoping to clear out in order to construct new affordable housing units for; it wasn’t until reading the press notes after the movie that I realized Ly wasn’t playing this Tati-esque fatality for morbid laughs (whispers of corruption muddied the waters, but the director’s general aversion to levity probably should’ve been my first clue).
The mayor’s demise starts a chain reaction that will soon find the whole town on the brink of implosion, especially once the deputy mayor and the local commissioner (Steve Tientcheu and Jeanne Balibar, both reprising the similar roles they played in “Les Misérables”) conspire to appoint a feckless pediatrician named Pierre (Alexis Manenti) as the new mayor. The power appeals to him, but the people in his constituency do not.
The biggest thorn in his side will prove to be a headstrong young woman named Haby (the excellent Anta Diaw), who interns as an archivist at the mayor’s office and moonlights as the president of an association that finds housing for immigrants. It’s Haby whose grandmother is in the coffin that several people struggle to carry down the cramped stairs of her apartment tower in the film’s opening scene, and it’s Haby — a self-proclaimed “Frenchwoman of today” — who reacts to Pierre’s gross inadequacy by deciding to challenge him at the polls. After all, shouldn’t the mayor of Grand-Bouquet be someone who actually knows what it’s like to live there?
For the length of a surprisingly upbeat montage, it seems like “Les Indésirables” will take shape around Haby’s grassroots campaign and become an inspirational (if hard-knuckled) story about people reclaiming their power, but anyone familiar with Ly’s previous work — including the screenplay he co-wrote for Romain Gavras’ ludicrously operatic “Athena” — should know better than to question his well-earned cynicism towards the French government’s ability to treat marginalized communities in good faith.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Ly’s script (co-written by Giordano Gederlini) is how profoundly it frustrates Haby’s efforts to pursue change through proper channels. Some versions of this story might create intermittent conflict from the obstacles it puts in this righteous young woman’s path, but “Les Indésirables” — uncompromising even in the face of its worst contrivances — derails Haby’s campaign altogether.
One moment it seems like the main thrust of the movie’s plot, and the next it’s almost a complete non-issue, as the situation in Grand-Bouquet starts to deteriorate so fast that simply being able to stay there becomes its residents’ sole focus. Pierre is a cartoonishly evil shit-eater who’s scared of his constituents and knows nothing about politics (his wife takes a pet interest in a family of Syrian refugees in a flimsy effort to absolve her guilt), but he’s smart enough to recognize that people can’t rise against you with a boot pressed to their throats. Pierre uses every tension in town as ammunition in his heedless quest to bring the public to heel, an act of mutually assured destruction that starts with offering large families pitiful sums of money to clear out of the crumbling old projects, and soon escalates into quasi-legal curfews and violent raids from there.
Ly thrives in these setpieces of civil unrest — sometimes perhaps too much. If not for the obvious and bone-deep concern he displays for his characters, the sheer virtuosity of the film’s stand-out sequences (e.g. the harried evacuation of a tower block after an illegal restaurant catches fire) might diminish the heartache behind them. The mass eviction that Pierre eventually leads against Haby’s building evokes the liquidation of the ghetto sequence from “Schindler’s List” in the artistry of its chaos, as swooping drone shots capture dozens of extras desperately throwing their personal belongings out the windows of their apartments before the cops bust down their doors.
It’s hard to galvanize empathy on a global scale without spilling into exploitation, and it’s made that much harder by a script that pushes against the ground-level realism of Ly’s direction as it builds to a head. Much of the problem is personified by Haby’s pyromaniac boyfriend (Aristote Luyindula as the fittingly named Blaz), who’s meant to serve as the Malcolm X to her Martin Luther King, Jr. in a film that doesn’t make time to explore the nuances of that frequent — and frequently unhelpful — dichotomy.
“You can’t be only angry all the time,” Haby cautions Blaz at one point, and “Les Indésirables” certainly sympathizes with both points of view: With her cool-headed constructiveness, and his fiery need to burn Grand-Bouquet’s racist local government to the ground. But in order to create drama from the stalemate between those twin approaches, Ly ultimately leverages Blaz’s faith in the power of political violence to push the character to melodramatic extremes.
His frustration is rooted in truth, and there’s no “reasonable” way for someone to react to the sweeping cruelty of being displayed from their own home — of being labeled “undesirable” simply because the people in power would rather purge their town of anyone who confronts them with the amorality of living in it on their terms alone. But Ly’s solution is expedient to a degree that makes the road to it seem overly engineered in retrospect; it’s a natural ending for a movie that refracts everyday oppression through the lens of a Greek tragedy, and an insufficient one for much the same reason.
“Les Indésirables” can’t be expected to offer a workable solution to the worsening tensions within French society, but the anger it earns from shining a light on the status quo is diminished by a climax that makes that anger seem both extraordinary and unproductive all at once. The only silver lining: Ly’s film ends with the perfect set-up for a proper sequel.
“Les Indésirables” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.