(The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ran September 7-17 and HtN has tons of coverage from the fest! ! Check out Chris Reed’s movie review of Les Indésirables. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
In Les Indésirables, director Ladj Ly (Les Misérables) continues his cinematic examination of France’s social issues, rooted in race and class, in the context of a gripping conflict between haves and have-nots. The former are represented by the mostly white—middle-class and above—residents of a Parisian suburb, while the latter are primarily working-class African and Middle-Eastern immigrants. Despite the efforts of some to ease tensions, clashes are inevitable, though in this uneven battle, one side has the arm of the state behind it. The “undesirables” have only themselves.
The film begins with a literal explosion. In the fictitious town of Montvilliers (modeled after the many real-life similar “banlieues” outside Paris), as local party bosses watch the demolition of an older housing project, the mayor suffers a fatal heart attack. Though his right-hand man, Roger (Steve Tientcheu, The Gravity), thinks he should be next in line, expecting that the town council will appoint him interim leader, they have other ideas in mind. Both and he and the late mayor were a little too close to some shady development deals. The party wants someone with cleaner hands.
And so they turn to Pierre (Alexis Manenti, Les Misérables), son of the dearly departed. As a pediatrician, he has a sterling reputation. He’s also a member of the council, so not a complete neophyte. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a bit of a reactionary. This does not bode well when tensions arise over long-standing problems among the underserved immigrant population.
Parallel to Pierre’s story unfolds that of Haby (Anta Diaw), who works for a community association and lives in a project building similar to the one just demolished. At the start, she is an upbeat presence, happy enough in her job and full of positive energy. This doesn’t mean she isn’t willing to fight for those she serves, as she amply demonstrates by confronting both Roger (now Pierre’s right-hand man) and Pierre. As the plot develops, however, and small-scale problems erupt into something much bigger, her mindset changes. As a result, she announces her own candidacy for mayor to challenge Pierre in the upcoming elections.
The surprise of the film is that the political campaign is not the main focus. Rather, Ly is much more interested in exploring the ways in which governmental authority is wielded, often on a whim, to contain those whose very presence threatens the perceived ordinary way of doing things. To this end, he creates a fascinating cast of characters, among them Roger, himself the child of African immigrants, whose aspirations to the higher echelons of politics lead him to act against his community’s interests. And then there is Haby and her friends and family, struggling to retain their dignity as Pierre and his minions do everything they can to strip it away.
The French title is “Bâtiment 5,” or “Building 5,” and it is indeed the building where Haby and others live that becomes the centerpiece. Initially small cruelties yield huge consequences, leading to even greater injustices. Montvilliers may be a construct of the screenplay, but the themes it represents are very real. Power corrupts. Vive la révolution!
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 Toronto International Film Festival; Ladj Ly; Les Indésirables movie review