Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film

Les Indésirables — Ladj Ly [TIFF ’23 Review]

September 13, 2023

“The real problem [or] the central mystery of politics is not sovereignty, but government; it is not God, but the angel; it is not the king, but ministry; it is not the law, but the police — that is to say, the governmental machine that they form and support.” Those are the words of the controversial Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, but they also describe the cinema of French filmmaker Ladj Ly and his interrogation of French social malaise. For Ly, the government can do no good; the poor, those at the mercy of the “governmental machine,” survive through class solidarity. And “survive” is the correct word to describe the cinema of Ly, and in particular his rendering of the plight of the poor: this is evident in both his 2019 Cannes competition film Les Misérables and in the new Les Indésirables, which siphons pent-up social anxieties to create an emotionally effective, even if ultimately politically reactive, social drama.

The progressive mayor of a Parisian suburb dies in the demolition of a decrepit building that he planned to replace with affordable housing. His replacement, the snotty and emotionally stunted Pierre (Alexis Manenti), inherits a righteously indignant population of largely North African immigrants angered by a gentrification plan that thinly disguises itself as a rehousing project. His aporophobia and Islamophobia only make the relationship more fraught (all the new Syrian refugees accepted into the city come from Christian backgrounds). As Pierre and his city government sniff out radicalizing potential, they pass “anti-gang” laws banning 15-to-18-year olds from gathering in groups in the town’s center and strictly enact a curfew of 8:00 PM for all minors — reminiscent of the tensity and imagery of the social restrictions globally experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic.

One young woman from Montvillers, Haby (Anta Diaw), who works an entry-level archival job in the mayor’s office and houses refugees in her spare time, decides to disrupt the status quo. Her boyfriend, the conveniently named Blaz (Aristote Luyindula), approaches the forced rehousing issue more in the tradition of Frantz Fanon or The Battle of Algiers than his liberal partner. “It’s cute. But pointless,” he lips to Haby, who admires the picket-and-sign protestors. The governmental machine needs to be broken… and that means someone needs to break it.

On a cold December walk, the couple pauses to gaze at a billboard advertisement for the pending housing project. Families deemed too large (as constructed by white French-Christian family norms) for the two-bedroom units that will be provided to them face an uncertainty. True to his namesake and always prepared with gasoline, Blaz burns the advertisement. In separate one-shots, their ideologies cement. Blaz looks at the fire with awe and empty eyes, as if he just received murderous inspiration from the Divine; Haby sees, like her boyfriend, a determined call to action. Unlike him, she doesn’t see such hatred in the flames. Once the separate ideologies are made plain, editor Flora Volpelière returns to an uncomfortable two-shot: the two separate meanings created at the fire collide with one another. Their romantic happiness now carries a sense of doom, as if the fire carried with it a pronouncement.

Speaking of fires, an accident at an illegal restaurant in Haby’s apartment complex starts a fire that causes structural damage to the building. The new mayor orders an eviction for the residential building on Christmas Eve, an eviction he orders knowing full well that the African deputy mayor (Steve Tientcheu) will take the blame. No subtleties here: the inhabitants of the Parisian projects become les indésirables, the “least of these,” on a holiday (celebrated by the film’s many Muslims) infused on the surface with a welcoming spirit. The eviction uses what appears to be hundreds of extras and is shot by cinematographer Julien Poupard with the same visual cues of looting media sensations: overwhelming visual and auditory clutter, the breakage of mundane items, a palpable and frenetic camera, and the throwing of large objects. The police evictors do little more than take up room on the stairways as they give the people no warning and no time to decide what to bring with them. In one brief but stylish sequence, the camera rests at a landing between stairs and follows an individual carrying his birdcage down before pivoting to another person complaining about the scenario as they climb the same staircase. There’s no more audacious setup in the entire film than this eviction sequence — nor is there a more successful one.

Later on Christmas Eve, Blaz expresses his incredible frustration by displacing his political energy onto a personal vendetta against the authorities he perceives as responsible. He breaks into the home of the “traitorous” deputy mayor, and as the earlier foreshadowing promised, prepares to set it ablaze. The editing of the final two acts of violence — one chronologically and thematically following from the other — forces a mental comparison between the two: simple, old-fashioned both-sidesism. But the two acts aren’t morally equivalent: one is a community of hundreds or even thousands of destitute immigrants that will financially play catch-up with the effects of their evictions for the better part of a decade; the other is a single rich family, physically unscathed (basically) and financially unharmed. One is an act of violence carried out by the muscle of the state, the other is a perturbed young man who misplaces his incredible frustration. The editing brazenly levels the two acts of violence onto one moral playing field.

The most frustrating element in Les Indésirables, though, comes from Ly’s incorporation of government-enforced curfews. As stated earlier, the experience of the young people in Montvillers resembles 2020-21 pandemic isolation. The youth express their dissatisfaction with the new discriminatory laws in a language that not-so-vaguely recalls the conservative reactionaries to social restrictions in the face of Covid. “We haven’t seen such measures since the Algerian War!” one disaffected woman yells, echoing the equally hyperbolic anti-lockdown protestors who compared Western governments to Nazis. Combined with the very real racial and economic issues that accompanied the global experience of the pandemic, the emotional dependency on real-life experiences of social restrictions comes off as manipulative. During the pandemic, those who opposed the restrictions were almost always doing so in bad faith and without the support of societies most vulnerable; in the film, those who oppose it are righteous victims.

Perhaps this makes Agamben a fitting philosophical ideological analogue to the cinema of Ly. The Italian philosopher thought “the health emergency was being exaggerated” to expand the reach of the state; he eventually denied that there even was a pandemic and became skeptical of vaccines. Even though the in-world scenario of Les Indésirables presents a truly oppressive and regressive local government, headed by a weasley man eager to exercise power, it’s manipulatively dependent on real-world memories and emotions about a very different set of government imposed social restrictions. It’s not that dissimilar to The Creator’s visual effect recycling of the 2020 Beirut explosion that killed 218 people: both twist real tragedy and pain for dishonest artistic benefit.

Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.