Back in 2019 French filmmaker Ladj Ly’s directing debut Les Misérables was a revelation. A gritty, grassroots-type movie about life in a low-income, immigrant-filled housing project outside Paris. How good was it? Good enough to win a Cannes Jury Prize and be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®. This time, Ly is mining the same situation to much less effect.
A mayor whose district encompasses a housing project filled with immigrants of color suddenly dies. Pierre (Alexis Manenti), a white pediatrician, becomes the interim mayor and has no affinity whatsoever for his constituents. A young Black Mali-born woman, Haby (Anta Diaw), is an assistant at a public housing association. She and her family are residents in the 10-story, broken elevator building Pierre wants torn down. It’s a fiery clash of wills. Highly combustible. Establishment vs neighborhood activists. Ruling class versus proletariats. Rich whites, with the occasional Uncle Tom (the deputy mayor Roger, played Steve Tientcheu who co-stared in Les Misérables), versus people of color. Haby to Roger: “You must have worked hard to be the mayor’s bitch!”
The footage starts with an elaborate drone shot floating over the project buildings and that‘s when the worrying starts. The overly lavish cinematography (Julien Poupard, Les Misérables) seems excessive, portending an over-produced movie. Setting so much of the story around Pierre’s life and from his point of view seems like a waste, too. Ly is best at depicting the oppression, degradation and unfairness of life for people who deserve better and want change. But pointing to problems is easy. Showing solutions requires homework. He has not done this or is unwilling to show a path out of systemic misery. Except for Haby’s failed mayoral bid.
One excellent scene features a crowd watching a building’s implosion and demolition. A cloud of smoke and debris envelopes all onlookers. Much like the ominous scene in the Swedish film Force Majeure. It’s an amazing visual. That sequence is as memorable as the cast ‘s performances—especially that of Manenti, Tientcheu and the magnificent Diaw.
Pity the script by Ly and Giordano Gederlini flounders. Its shortcomings are most noticeable when at film’s end revenge is sought, warranted and thwarted.
Disappointing. Considering Ly’s former success. Considering the cinéma vérité style of Les Misérables. Noble but disappointing.