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Les Indésirables ★★★★



Director: Ladj Ly

Cast: Anta Diaw, Alexis Manenti, Steve Tientcheu, Aristote Luyindula

Released: BFI London Film Festival 2023

French political tensions with authorities pitted against Parisian residents and those residing in the city’s suburbs have made news headlines over recent years. Famously, there was the oft-reported 2005 incident with the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy describing Paris rioters as ‘racaille’ (scum). Additionally, the summer of 2023 saw the fatal shooting by police of a resident of the Parisian suburb Nanterre, which resulted in riots and protests. Ladj Ly’s second feature, Les Indésirables (aka Bâtiment 5), is therefore highly timely with its no-holds-barred portrayal of the clash between a newly elected mayor, Pierre (Alexis Manenti) and freshly formed activist Haby (Anta Diaw in an impressive acting debut). Thus, Les Indésirables is a riveting examination of incendiary conflict highlighting racism and socio-economic issues as matters escalate between residents and police, with added insight from Haby’s perspective.

Ly quickly paints a portrait of Haby’s world – she is inundated with housing requests from immigrants and resides within a derelict tower block in a seemingly impoverished neighbourhood. Ly equally captures these undesirable living conditions with insightful, panoramic birds-eye view shots of the high-rise estate. This immersion instantly recognises the precarious nature surrounding Haby’s livelihood and her neighbours, which Ly achieves without employing excessive dialogue. Still, there is a sense of community established from the outset and is assisted by the successful depiction of collective emotion via close-ups of the residents in a moment of grief as they assemble to pray for a burial. Ly’s vision, without labouring the point, illustrates that precariousness  – a coffin and, later, other furniture items are trapped within the narrow walls of the tower blocks. Still, the residents assist each other to ensure its safe passage. Such scenes represent chaos but equally harmony existing in the community. Yet, Haby’s mother aspires to live elsewhere, which Haby instantly dismisses as not being ‘where people like them are from.’ Haby appears to hold greater ambitions to succeed and intern within the mayor’s office. However, such conflicting ideals uncomfortably rise to the surface. Ly rises to the occasion by showing the natural, rising tension combined with the unnerving sense of dread injected by the dramatic score.

Haby’s menial work within the mayor’s office provides that contrast to the life of Pierre, who is granted equal amounts of screen time. Brimming with ideas to impress his superiors, he is not sufficiently self-aware and, in his quest for power, has sidelined a longstanding member of the team, who happens to reside within the neighbourhood. Tension is, therefore, unwittingly created by Pierre internally and externally concerning his mayoral position. Even his wife warns of a fraught situation given Pierre’s governing of an unfamiliar neighbourhood as he seeks to improve governmental relationships over real estate contracts to ‘clean up’ and gentrify the neighbourhood. Pierre’s methods are questionable, however, and expose political machinations.

Ly has, therefore, presented the ideal battleground between these disparate worlds. This is further assisted by powerful cinematography of burning embers within buildings, ratcheting up the tension and impressive world-building. Ly has created a fraught world; many scenes are filmed within building interiors, with danger seemingly around every corner. We watch helplessly as familiar unjust scenes explode onscreen with disproportionate levels of police violence during moments of peaceful protest. But Ly equally invites compassion during these escalations as we slowly witness the unfortunate transformation of impressionable persons, eventually leading to distrust of authorities and resentment.

Despite a seemingly bleak, slow-paced topic, Les Indésirables remains sympathetic and subtly hopeful to the plight of the residents and the idealistic who become jaded. The burning embers fuel that sense of unbridled outrage in response to continuous injustice. Ly does not offer any compromises, however, resulting in disheartening scenes, particularly where residents’ lives’ are disrupted without notice, leading to them discarding their possessions through windows.

Les Indésirables never fails to expose the intensity of the situation and may leave audiences feeling anxious, frustrated and outraged at the prejudice levelled towards a community with inadequate resources. This may not be a polished film, but it is authentic in its ambitions. Les Indésirables is a captivating tale which never loses its grip and will equally inspire that fighting spirit amongst others. Despite levels of déjà vu, Ly’s decision to be immersive, with documentary-style footage, exudes a fresh perspective to keep audiences invested in Haby’s story and the ongoing plight. Above all, Les Indésirables merits its place in the recent canon of films, highlighting the large amounts of necessary reform in the constant battle for equality.

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