Ladj Ly’s 2019 debut feature, “Les Misérables,” took 15 years to make but received kudos in France and scored a 2020 Oscar nomination. Ly received multiple offers to direct Hollywood films, but chose to return to France and make “Les Indésirables,” which Ly initially called “Bâtiment 5” after the grubby high-rise tenement — now razed — where he grew up outside Paris. The film premieres tomorrow night at the Toronto International Film Festival, but days before, he talked to us via Zoom. “I feel the pressure,” he said. “The bar is quite high.”
He needn’t worry. From the start, Ly ratchets the tension with the residents’ tamped-down anger. The film’s opening, in which six men carry a coffin down six flights of stairs, is torturous to watch and sets up the living conditions the characters endure.
“It’s never easy to take down a coffin from the fifth or sixth floor of a building,” said Ly, “but it’s also a mirror and reflection of the living condition of the people that live in those block of buildings. It’s a way to say they were born there, they lived there all their lives, and they die there. It makes us think of the living conditions they had to to deal with, considering also all the things that never worked, like the lifts.”
The director recreated his “Les Misérables” filmmaking team and fashioned another fictional screenplay (with Giordano Gederlini) based on true events. Ly himself, much like his radical female protagonist Habi (Jeanne Balibar), once put together a list for a Leftist mayoral candidate — who lost by 150 votes.
“It’s fictional, but it’s still very close to reality and to the environment that I grew up with,” Ly said. “I’ve always been very engaged politically and socially. I’ve been a militant for 20 years. Habi is a militant like many women that I met in that environment. And it was through these women and their courage that things evolved and changed. There are many militants and I wanted to pay tribute to the engagement that they’ve always had.”
This time, Ly had a bigger budget but his methods didn’t change. He wants to keeps the energy going during filming as much as possible. “I never stop,” he said. “I’m always pushing the actors and the people working on set.” For the major set piece that showed evacuation of the high rise, Ly shot for three weeks with as many as 150-200 extras, three cameras, and a crane amid the narrow spaces of the flats and the stairs.
“That was a big, big challenge and I’m proud of something I’ve not done before,” he said. “I had the equipment available to be able to to meet my own view of filmmaking and my own technique. This is quite a relief: You’re still able to to take on your own approach and to work with your own people. But you feel more relaxed in a way.”
In one sequence, an angry, just-evacuated man attacks the conservative mayor’s family on Christmas Eve. It was entirely fictional, but turned out to be closer to reality than Ly thought. “Recently a few months back after the killing of Nael,” said Ly, “there have been riots and one mayor was attacked in his own apartment in his own house in France, because people were fed up. Our fictional scene was shot way before, but then as it happens reality is bigger than than fiction.”
Indeed, that’s Ly’s target. “My aim and my goal is to witness and to talk about the problems,” he said. “I’m hoping to open up a debate that can maybe lead to an exchange and to find a solution altogether. If that happens, I’m of course thrilled and happy. But that’s the reason why I make films. My films have always been very much politically engaged and they talk about the reality of the difficulties in the life of many individuals. That is my mission as an artist and the hope is to be able to make a difference somehow.”
The film will be released in France in December, with the possibility of being submitted for the Best International Feature Oscar by France, again. “If we have the chance we’d love to live once again the magic experience of the Academy Awards,” he said. “It was a crazy, bigger-than-life experience.”
Next up: Ly is writing. But he’s open, he said. “I’m always listening to what I’m offered. For the time being I’d rather stay in France and do my own projects. But if someone comes around that somehow interests me, why not? I could take on a project abroad.”