THE STORY – When the existing Mayor suddenly dies, family doctor Pierre (Alexis Manenti) finds himself chosen as interim Mayor. But Pierre is woefully unfamiliar with the less affluent members of his constituency and soon realizes he’s in over his head. Haby (Diaw), meanwhile, is Pierre’s opposite: President of a public housing association, she herself lives in one of the city’s “10-story favelas.” As Pierre’s administration unleashes an aggressive campaign targeting immigrants, Haby decides to put herself forward as a candidate in the forthcoming mayoral election. But can she and her team act fast enough to prevent their community from being evicted wholesale?
THE CAST – Anta Diaw, Alexis Manenti, Aristote Luyindula, Steve Tientcheu, Aurélia Petit & Jeanne Balibar
THE TEAM – Ladj Ly (Director/Writer) & Giordano Gederlini (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 101 Minutes
The Mayor of a Parisian suburb has died. Instead of naming the Black Deputy Mayor as his successor and interim Mayor, the party decides to go with someone untainted by the political machine: family doctor Pierre (Alexis Manenti), who has little political experience and even less knowledge of the lives of his city’s most underprivileged citizens. Pierre quickly finds himself besieged by people wanting things from him, including Haby (Anta Diaw), an intern in the town’s archives who also works as the President of a public housing association. Through a series of unfortunate events, Pierre and Haby find each other on opposing sides of an escalating battle over the large community of immigrants living in the town’s public housing projects. Pierre may be in over his head, but he has the power of his office and the might of the town’s police force on his side. Haby may have her heart in the right place, but can she actually get her community to stand together as one and fight for their right to life instead of letting their rage boil over?
Ladj Ly’s spiritual sequel of sorts to his 2017 Cannes Jury Prize winner “Les Misérables,” “Les Indésirables,” is another pressure cooker of a social issue drama-cum-political thriller, this time set mainly in and around the housing block in which Ly himself actually lived at one point. You can feel Ly’s connection to the place in the loving examination of the community that has grown there despite the city salting the earth by not keeping the projects in livable condition; practically every square inch of wall space in common areas is covered in graffiti, and the elevators haven’t worked in years, leaving handicapped residents stranded and even the most in-shape police officers out of breath from running up multiple flights of stairs. Of the many residents of the projects we meet, only Haby and her cousin Blaz get real character development. Still, we see so many details that flesh out their world so that we feel as though we are a part of it – you can smell the delicious-looking food the women cook in a makeshift restaurant in one of their apartments, hear one resident’s “fragile” pet birds, and feel the weight of the coffin they must maneuver down the narrow stairwell in the film’s opening sequence.
All of this deepens our connection to these people so that when the Mayor makes the film’s final, fatal decision, we feel the total weight of what this means for everyone in the neighborhood. By this point, we have seen their aggression, heard their frustration, and felt their pain. We also know that all these pent-up emotions have nowhere to go, making the squirm-inducing final sequence feel painfully inevitable. The only outlet the project residents seem to have is Haby, who sees what is happening in her community and decides to do something about it, choosing to run for Mayor against Pierre and engaging in the kind of grassroots organizing and outreach that has seen people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get elected to office in the US. By paralleling Haby’s story with that of her cousin Blaz (Aristote Luyindula), Ly makes some canny observations about how apathy can rot within the systematic disenfranchisement of marginalized communities and how activism can counter that, provided the apathetic can be persuaded.
Ly asks many questions in “Les Indésirables,” none of which have easy answers. Smartly, he doesn’t attempt to answer them, but his use of thrilling long takes (often aided by swooping drone shots) lends an immediacy to every image that dares the audience to look away. While both the housing crisis and anti-immigrant sentiment are real, serious problems, Ly seems to acknowledge that they are far deeper and more insidious than can be solved throughout one film. Pierre, in particular, is one of the most chilling movie villains in recent memory, not just for Manenti’s perpetually blank stare but for how deeply he understands the semantics of political gamesmanship. He will stand in front of a group of young people doing nothing but walking together in the street and stone-facedly tell his police officers exactly what law he clearly sees them breaking, even when the Chief of Police can see that it’s a giant stretch. The Hippocratic Oath, which all doctors practice, may state, “First, do no harm,” but Pierre is far more concerned with getting the respect that he feels is owed to him by virtue of his office and sending a message to anyone who doesn’t give it to him than with the actual well-being of the citizens he is supposed to care for. Still, he’s too good at justifying his actions by twisting his language to make it seem like he has everyone’s best interests at heart. But by the film’s end, Haby and her family see him for who he truly is.
Ly ends the film in an uncertain place, with very little resolved. This could be unsatisfying, but instead, it feels like the exact right note: These are issues that have been festering for decades, if not centuries, and it will likely take decades if not centuries, in order to right the wrongs that have stemmed from them. As long as people like Pierre exist, people like Haby will have to work that much harder to make a difference. But as long as people like Haby exist, there’s hope, even if it’s in just one room of one housing block in one city of one country.