The films of Ladj Ly, heir apparent to the mantle of France’s street-level cinéma de banlieue, land with the force of molotov cocktails – scorching, destructive and imprecise. His narrative debut Les Misérables took the jury prize at Cannes for its viscerally rendered tensions between immigrant populations and brutal police squads in the state-forsaken suburbs, undercut by a noncommittal final tableau that implicitly asked why we can’t all just get along. He co-authored the script for longtime friend Romain Gavras’s drama Athena, which applied a similar formal elan to a clash between the penniless disaffected and the riot cops, then concluded with another ambiguous partial exoneration for the aggressors. For all his well-founded resentment toward those at the top of an oppressive power structure, he always reserves some obligatory measure of alarm that those at the bottom will go too far as well.
“This film is not about turning anyone into a hero, nor is it accusing anyone,” Ly writes in the press notes for his sophomore effort, a splashy world premiere here at the Toronto international film festival. “That would be too easy.” He’s back in the director’s chair on Les Indésirables, and back in the projects; his latest explosion of capital-C Commentary takes place in an impoverished housing block set for demolition, forcing the African and Middle Eastern residents to either relocate or cram themselves into a slum-to-be with drastically reduced square footage. Coming from an ex-con native to this milieu, the heat of Ly’s righteous, hard-earned rage radiates off the screen. But as one rebel finds after torching a sign touting the bright new future of his soon-to-be-leveled home, fires are easy to start and difficult to control.
Two deaths catalyze an outbreak of unrest in a neighborhood already teetering on a razor’s edge, and call de facto representatives from the opposing factions to duty. A local elder passes in a reverent funeral ceremony marred by the indignity of maneuvering her casket down the narrow stairs of the walk-up building, leaving the departed’s granddaughter Haby (Anta Diaw) with a newfound sense of social responsibility. Shortly thereafter, the controlled teardown of a different high-rise raises a cloud of dust that incites a heart attack in the local mayor, which ushers in the interim appointee Pierre (Alexis Manenti). Soon, he’ll grow fond of authority and make a run at the position he claimed he didn’t want, while she’ll step up to give him some competition and a voice to the people. The parallelism in this dovetailed narrative construction, however, also speaks to Ly’s standby of false equivalency.
If the craven conservative Pierre and flinty centrist Haby form two-thirds of an ideological spectrum, the far pole of radicalism is personified in Blaz (Aristote Luyindula), an angry young man more invested in releasing his pent-up wrath than working toward feasible solutions. Ly sympathizes with this impulse to lash out, particularly in the care with which he maps the compact, robust community at stake. A small off-the-books restaurant gives this ethnic enclave a locus of social life along with a taste of home, while testifying to both its owners’ and patrons’ resourceful self-sufficiency in the face of adversity. The most piercing sequence stages the evacuation of the complex like the liquidation of Kraków in Schindler’s List, as the desperate rush to condense their personal history into what few belongings they can carry in their arms. The dehumanization rings loud and clear, the government’s hostility having reduced innumerable lives to a handful of objects.
And yet Ly mistakes lip service for circumspection as he attempts to complicate a dynamic that has less nuance than he thinks. He avowedly resists the binary of good and bad guys, but because one side of the conflict has an undeniable moral high ground, the writing meant to challenge that much can play as inelegantly contrived. A higher-up in the mayor’s office who also happens to be an African immigrant (Steve Tientcheu) bluntly demonstrates that allegiances of class supersede those of race. A father-and-daughter pair of Syrian refugees stand in for their demographic, and illustrate the friction that sometimes sparks between different factions of the enclave. When Blaz inevitably snaps and takes overreaching action, he still stops short of anything fatal, all but stating aloud that he’s not a monster. Even if this equivocating was intended to bolster realism with shades of grey, in practice, it only sharpens the contrast in a black-and-white scenario.
Once Blaz storms into the mayoral residence for a climactic confrontation, his vengeful property damage crests as he tramples the Christmas presents of the children tearfully looking on. The gesture recalls an equally ham-fisted moment earlier in the film, when one officer of the law walks all over a kid’s toy cars in the process of muscling everyone out. Blaz has become what he most detested in his fight against it, a concern that may have more validity in France (where the body counts of the bloody Revolution and previous June Rebellion, chronicled by Ly’s favored reference point Victor Hugo in the other Les Misérables, still hang over the national self-image) than in North America. Independent of that context, a viewer can hear Ly inadvertently echoing the rightwing talking point that “mistakes were made on both sides”, so often trotted out after a high-pressure standoff between protesters and militarized police breaks out into violence.
Rejecting partisanship to affect the appearance of balance doesn’t make sense when dealing with situations defined by imbalance. Both Ly’s Hollywood bombast and impulse to undue generosity in his political convictions fight the vulcanized hardness of his bracing outrage, and ultimately prove little about today’s powder kegs. “Aren’t we all undesirable to someone?” he asks in the press notes. “No, not really,” seems like a pretty reasonable answer.