Five years ago, French filmmaker Ladj Ly made quite the splash with his debut feature Les Misérables, a harrowing, gut-wrenching story of how powerless, marginalized groups can fight back against oppression. That film was both original and incredibly authentic, with memorable sequences highlighting how anger builds up to the point of utter destruction. With Les Indésirables, Ly seems keen to continue addressing the same issues, although from a slightly different angle.
While his debut feature tackled clashes between under-served groups and the police, as a response to unjustified brutality and clear discrimination, his follow-up film addresses housing issues and how power-hungry officials will stop at nothing to strip even the most disadvantaged from all what’s left of their rights. It’s not a fresh take, nor as eye-popping visually or dramatically striking as his previous effort, but that could have been overcome by a powerful narrative that still could have addressed such similar themes in memorable ways.
Sadly, that’s not the case. While striving to make the film important and relevant to present-day struggles, particularly in France where minorities continue to struggle with alienation, racism and lack of healthcare among several other issues, the film seems to favor importance over impact, coming across as too self-conscious to leave any lasting impression on the viewer. At times, the film seems like an essay on how politicians have long abandoned serving their constituents and how the marginalized continue to be living on the sidelines of a society that refuses to ever consider including them, treating them as outsiders who should instead feel grateful they’ve been granted access to Europe.
Set in one of Paris’ poorest suburbs, the story kicks off with a demolition event in which the mayor proudly announces plans to develop the neighbourhood’s housing capacity. The demolition is intended to mark a new chapter for the area but when it goes horribly wrong, the mayor passes away and a search ensues for a successor. Enter family doctor Pierre (Alexis Manenti) who is soon chosen as interim mayor. Realizing he was only voted for by the board and not the actual constituents he was meant to serve, he seeks to prove his power rather than his worth, eventually clashing with the locals after a set of vindictive measures he resorts to.
The story shifts back and forth between Pierre’s struggles as an unpopular mayor and Haby (Diaw) who works at a public housing association and has her own struggles with terrible living conditions. Despite all the challenges, Haby represents hope for the local community: she is a fierce leader-in-the-making, a beacon of hope to a decaying society where compassion has become rare to come by. With frequent clashes and growing public resentment due to Pierre’s oppressive measures, Haby decides to run against him in a contested election, hoping things would finally change for a long-suffering community.
Straightforward to a fault, the repetitive script features struggling characters clashing with indifferent officials who have lost the capacity to empathize, understand or attempt to change the devastating living conditions that have plagued the lives of the marginalized. But rather than deliver such plight compellingly, the film ends up being too loud, too try-hard and, more importantly, lacking any dramatic heft that makes us compelled to root for its characters. What we witness, instead, is a clash that keeps us at arms’ length, even if we believe these characters deserve much better.
It is a shame because Ly is a gifted filmmaker with a unique ability to build impressive set pieces, tackle pressing issues and giving a voice to the voiceless. And as important, but narratively lacking, as his sophomore film is, it ends up a misfire.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.