Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 15, 2024 2:58 pm 
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Ladj Ly issues another powerful cinematic blast against political inequality in France

In his sophomore feature, Les Indésirables/Bâtiment 5, Malian-born filmmaker Ladj Ly follows up on his 2019 Cannes Jury Prize-winning Les Misérables with another turbulent depiction of Parisian social inequality. The new film surges powerfully and excels technically, with its fires, explosions and movements of masses of people. This is the work of an angry man (and in fact actual convictions show Ly is that). It draws its political and moral lines and acts out its Manichean oppositions with brute force.

But the new film rushes to its bad results so fast Ly's message loses the subtlety he had in the first film. Viewers certainly may end impressed or moved. The incessant action sweeps you along. But you may wind up feeling manipulated. Sadly, since in its way this is a powerful and well-made, and certainly a deeply felt film, in the end not much has been added to the French cinematic literature about the joys and woes of the banlieue. If we look back at Les Misérables, despite the anger, there was more complexity - more characters, more incidents, a slower accumulation of meaning. Though the cops were hated, interestingly Les Misérables' story was told from their point of view.

The opening scene of the new film is a blast, literally. City officials stand on a podium waiting for old public housing towers to be demolished by an explosion and cut the ribbons on new construction. But the explosions were badly placed or excessive and as the building goes down the clouds and reactions endanger the gathered officials. In the shock, the mayor collapses and can't be revived.

Pediatrician Pierre Forges (Alexis Manenti), who continues his practice, gets quickly appointed as interim mayor to replace the fallen one. His wife Nathalie (Aurélia Petit) warns him he'll be in trouble; that he'll be dealing with areas and their inhabitants strange to him. He insists politics is his thing. He immediately turns into an avenger for the right with no sympathy for the downtrodden, coldly rebuffing anyone who approaches him with a personal appeal, and he carries out a series of cruel actions, first having unlicensed mechanics forcibly removed from the open space they've occupied for years. The inhabitants of the cité are scheduled to be relocated, but it turns out the plans for new locations provide no accommodations for big families. This is where the black sub-mayor in unsympathetic.

But it gets much wosrse than that. Ultimately when there's a fire in an unlicensed restaurant in the titular housing estate, he has its entire population suddenly evicted on the grounds that it is now structurally unsound, so they're unsafe. Making hundreds of people homeless to "protect them" is a spectacular outrage, and of course completely illegal and against procedures, as the black assistant mayor points out, to no avail. This really happened to the housing block Ladj Ly grew up in, and it was called "Bâtiment 5," the original film title; Ly collaborated with artist and photographer JR’s Chronicles Of Clichy Montfermeil project depicting the actual event (see the Deadline article and interview on this).

For a while it looks like the film will focus more on multiple viewpoints, certainly including the assimilated black assistant in the mayor's office and a Syrian immigrant family recently arrived. Ultimately besides the heartless interim mayor, though, there is just Haby Keita (Anta Diaw) and Blaz (Aristote Luyindula). She has decided to run for mayor against the unelected Forges, and starts a campaign with lots of signs, murals, and posters to publicize herself, but not many political speeches. She and Blaz are close. But while she is working slowly to enter politics, he impulsively resorts to violent action, and gives the movie its crudely satisfying revenge. Nothing is going to restore the evicted residents whose lives have been trashed.

The film, though largely true, reads as bold agitprop that may make you angry, but one may ask if artistry is not discarded in the interest of shaking up the viewer. A great deal of time is spent on the eviction, on the turbulent crowd and the visual enactment of beds and furniture `and possessions lowered or tossed out of windows in a tragic effort to save them, of kids searching for their plushies, of a few struggling to go back in for lost items, and the cops, a hostile force full of the adrenalin of an avenging army, brutally moving them out. Ly achieves impressive ensemble acton here. And this is of course his main subject: to recreate a personal trauma: this recreation is something he had to do. It may seem excessive; but Carlos Aguilar suggests in his Toronto Variety review that this is "the rare instance" when Ly "allows the images to speak for themselves" rather than have a character "instructively claim why we must care."

The climax is a sudden, shocking solitary action of revenge against the mayor by the desperate Blaz, who terrorizes his family and destroys his Christmas decorations, in the process terrorizing the Syrian family the mayor has invited in for the celebration, as if vicariously to "convert" them. (Someone earlier has mentioned a rumor that for Muslims, celebrating Christmas may be haram or unlawful. But the Syrians have gotten short shrift here.)

Haby's warmth and simple charisma provide some hope of a voice for the voiceless. But the violence leaves you shattered: the abrupt revenge finale highlights that this, a much shorter film than Les Misérables, cuts corners to be that way. It's telling that Ly, the Cannes darling of four years ago, this time debuted at Toronto. Gael Golhen, reviewing for French Première, expressed some of the French criticisms in this quote: "Didactic (Haby's role), artificial in the sequence of situations and caricatural in the writing of characters and the performances (particularly that of Manenti), Bâtiment 5 is driven by good feelings, agitprop and the desire to settle scores. This is legitimate, but it renders the drama Manichean and ineffective."

Ly is a passionate director and an ambitious and driven one, and he surely will continue to draw attention. Hopefully he will work out a subtler balance between showing and telling, message and artistry, passion and analysis in future work.

Les Indésirables/Bâtiment 5, 105 mins., debuted Sept. 6, 2023 at Toronto, also showing at Zurich and London BFI. It opened theatrically in France Dec. 6, 2023. AlloCiné press rating 3.0 (60%) , spectators 2.7 (54%).

Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York (Feb. 29-Mar. 10, 2024. Showtimes:
Saturday, March 2 at 9:15pm (Q&A with Ladj Ly)
Thursday, March 7 at 8:30pm

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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