When Mathieu Kassovitz’s brutal inner-city drama La Haine was released in 1995, the film’s reach extended beyond the usual confines of the cinema and its patrons. Alain Juppé, the French Prime Minister at the time, commissioned a special screening of the movie which all cabinet ministers were required to attend, and although the government announced that it disagreed wholeheartedly with the anti-police themes in the story, it acknowledged that La Haine was ‘a beautiful work of cinematographic art that can make us more aware of certain realities‘.
Those ‘certain realities’ relate to life in the council estates of suburban Paris, or ‘banlieues’, and the government’s statement remains as true today as it was then. La Haine is a ferocious, unforgiving attack on the authorities in France (in particular the police), and a damning, depressing indictment of the culture of violence and criminality that exists within the poorer areas of the French capital. It’s a fascinating, expertly-constructed movie that stands up to repeated viewings, and I watch it once every three or four years; little wonder that Kassovitz won the Best Director award at Cannes in 1995, or that the film received a standing ovation at its first screening. Whether it changed the political situation in France is another matter entirely, but getting the attention of the Prime Minister and his cabinet is a fine achievement in itself.
The plot covers – roughly – a 24 hour period in the lives of three friends: Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Maghrebi Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Afro-French Hubert (Hubert Koundé). Vinz is hot-headed and has the staunchest anti-police attitude of the three, Hubert is more mature and contemplative, while Saïd is somewhere in the middle and often must smooth over relations between the other two. Ongoing riots are taking place on their estate, and the nightly clashes with the police have resulted in a friend, Abdel Ichaha, lying in a coma after being savagely beaten. At the beginning of the movie Vinz has found a policeman’s gun and the gym belonging to boxer Hubert – which he founded with government grants – has been burned to the ground. The three pass time during the day by selling small quantities of hash, telling jokes and struggling to find entertainment, but after they are caught up in the aftermath of a violent retribution attack on the police they flee for central Paris. This gives them temporary sanctuary but as night falls their attraction to trouble, coupled with increased police brutality, results in a series of flashpoints that grow ever more serious.
Kassovitz was inspired to write this story after the death of a young Zairian, Makome M’Bowole, who was shot at point-blank range while handcuffed to a radiator in police custody in 1993. He was also moved to make the film by the killing of student Malik Oussekine, who died in 1986 after being beaten by the police. Oussekine had been singled out after a mass demonstration in which, it transpired, he took no part whatsoever. Thus La Haine is understandably a movie informed by righteous anger, though it asks many questions of the French authorities without ever laying the sole blame for the events it depicts at their door.
Shot in black and white, Kassovitz and his crew actually moved in to the Parisian suburb of Chanteloup-les-Vignes for several months prior to filming. Much of the footage is shot in this banlieue, and this is occasionally interspersed with real footage of riots that took place in the area between 1986 and the mid-1990s; strengthening the movie’s take on reality, and illustrating its timely nature, riots were actually going on while La Haine was being filmed. Due to the film’s controversial subject matter, seven or eight local councils refused to allow the crew to work on their territory, and Kassovitz had to pretend to remove the movie’s violent ending and change the name of the script in order to secure the necessary permits.
La Haine is filled with neat touches and techniques which, although indicative of a young, inexperienced filmmaker’s unchecked enthusiasm, also make the viewing experience a real treat for anyone wishing to test their own visual literacy. The three principal characters, for example, are introduced in unusual and interesting ways: we learn Saïd’s name after he is seen tagging a police van; Vinz is made known to us by a close-up of a ring he wears bearing his name after he performs a bizarre jig; and Hubert is revealed via a promotional poster for a boxing match. Then there’s the use of advertising phrases and graffiti throughout, which usually links to the dialogue and is often relevant to the movies’ themes of conflict, alienation, disenchantment and territory. When the trio arrive in central Paris, Kassovitz uses a dolly zoom to heighten the feeling that all is not well, that they are fish out of water. And, as another example, the film pays homage to the wider world of cinema in a varied way: an aping of the classic ‘you talkin’ to me?’ speech from Taxi Driver is included to reveal certain aspects of Vinz’s personality, while there’s a poignant rooftop scene in which the characters joke that the lights on the distant Eiffel Tower would only ever go out on cue in the movies, only for it to actually happen seconds after the three walk away.
It’s the sheer breadth of Kassovitz’s ideas that makes La Haine so compelling, as well as the three excellent lead performances. This is a film packed with concepts and visual flair, and while some of it works and some of it suggests a director trying too hard to impress, your attention is commanded nonetheless. The feeling of not knowing what is going to happen next comes partly from the unpredictable actions of the characters (up to a point, anyway) and partly from Kassovitz’s desire for the movie to suddenly and repeatedly change direction; he inserts irreverent monologues in which random characters tell jokes, incorporates sequences that paint a broad picture of daily life in the banlieues, breaks the fourth wall repeatedly and generally avoids conventional storytelling techniques, even if there is a clear ending to the events depicted. (One stylish scene sees the DJ Cut Killer scratching with copies of French rap group Assassin’s Nique La Police (‘Fuck The Police’) and that traditional Parisian favourite by Edith Piaf, Je Ne Regrette Rien, while the camera pans over the tower blocks and courtyards.) It also looks great, particularly the first half: Kassovitz and cinematographer Pierre Aïm work wonders in the concrete jungle, and though you could accuse them of glamourizing these spaces somewhat, it’s a distinctive take on this type of urban location.
The three leads are very good, each one successfully portraying intriguing, memorable characters whose friendship – veering wildly between arguments and good-natured camaraderie – is totally believable. Given their relative lack of experience at the time the film was made, it’s an excellent collective achievement, and Hubert, Vinz and Saïd all captivate from start to finish; you certainly get the impression that the issues the film highlights are ones the actors identify with and are passionate about. Cassel in particular shines as the loose cannon of the trio, expertly capturing the emotional struggle of a young man who believes that like-for-like violence is the only way in which he can prove himself and gain the respect of his peers, yet does not necessarily have the willpower or the cold-hearted mentality to turn his thoughts into action.
La Haine is an angry film, one which feels at times to be a crusade of sorts, in the way it attempts to shame the police with its veracity. It is also filled with a sense of desperation and frustration, recognising that many young men in modern France are forced to see life as a constant exercise in survival (evidenced by the repeated story in the movie of a man falling off the roof of a skyscraper, who keeps stating ‘so far so good’ as he plummets to the ground). There’s a suggestion throughout that a life of violence and crime isn’t merely an option, it’s the only option, and as such it’s a tough, often depressing movie to contemplate. It portrays a society on a knife edge that could apparently descend into chaos at any point, and as such it’s easy to draw comparisons between the mid-1990s Paris of La Haine and the 2011 riots that occurred in the UK following the killing of Mark Duggan. It is a landmark dramatisation of the pressures of modern urban life among the poor and racially-oppressed, and Kassovitz tells his story with great skill and invention, making the clear point that the problems identified should not be ignored, marginalised or thought of as something that only affects the suburban estates. He doesn’t waste a single shot.
Directed by: Mathieu Kassovitz
Written by: Mathieu Kassovitz
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, Hubert Koundé
Running Time: 98 minutes