Mathieu Kassovitz took the film world by storm with La haine, a gritty, unsettling, and visually explosive look at the racial and cultural volatility in modern-day France, specifically the low-income banlieue districts on Paris’s outskirts. Aimlessly passing their days in the concrete environs of their dead-end suburbia, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé), and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui)—a Jew, an African, and an Arab—give human faces to France’s immigrant populations, their bristling resentment at their marginalization slowly simmering until it reaches a climactic boiling point. A work of tough beauty, La haine is a landmark of contemporary French cinema and a gripping reflection of its country’s ongoing identity crisis.
La Haine (1995) film notes by Tova Gannana for Faraway Entertainment
La Haine (1995) does not have a soundtrack. The music heard in the film is being listened to in the film. In this way the audience is part of the characters’ journey. What we do have is perspective. La Haine opens with a montage of real riots between the French police and the people who live in the banlieues. A newscaster narrates, “Riots rocked the project late into the night. A mob of youths attacked the police station in the Muguet projects.” Her voice brings us into the story of the film, “Two days ago a local teen was severely beaten while in custody. The officer was suspended. The victim, Abdel Ichaha, is still in critical condition.” The screen goes black as the TV is turned off. La Haine is not about bad guys vs. good guys. It's about people vs. systems, about the lack of opportunity for people who live in public housing. They have no employment and no cafes, art galleries, jazz clubs, or museums. They are not respected. They are seen as mobs, rioters, or looters, as not belonging. Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), Vinz (Vincent Cassel), and Hubert (Hubert Koundé) live in a suburb cut off from Paris like an amputated limb. They have no car or job. The gym where Hubert trains as a boxer is burned down during a riot. So is the local school. When they venture into Paris the last train leaves at midnight, and they are left stranded at the station. They hot-wire a car, but they don’t know how to drive. In La Haine there is brutality and friendship, idleness and ingenuity. Women stay mostly indoors. Men sit on the roof, roasting hot dogs and playing music, anything to pass the time. La Haine feels like the characters are on the Titanic with an iceberg below the surface about to hit.
The teen in the hospital, Abdel Ichaha, is the headline that haunts the film. Saïd, Vinz and Hubert speak endlessly of him. Vinz wants revenge. Hubert wants to stay calm and make it out of the suburbs. Saïd is their referee. The film is fiction and also a metaphor. It mimics what happens in France in the streets. It’s a lesson; Alain Juppe who was then prime minister watched the film with his cabinet. It’s a prophecy; riots continue in France between the disenfranchised and the police. Abdel dies from his wounds. The film picks up speed. Vinz finds a gun and intends to use it.
Norman Podhoretz wrote in his book, Making It (1965), “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan-or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.” Podhoretz entered the middle-class by way of his education. What if you don’t have a school in your neighborhood? Or the school is a joke, or the teachers think of the students as a joke? Without a job, an income, a daily place to go, a ladder to climb, dreams to be actualized, what does one do all day? Saïd is Arab, Hubert is African, and Vinz is a Jew. They are a representation of who sticks out in France. Who is meant to assimilate and integrate. Who is meant to forget the past, drop their accent, change their name, hide their kippah, uncover their hair.
Hubert has the first lines of the film, “It’s about a guy who falls off a skyscraper. On his way down past each floor, he keeps telling himself, ‘so far so good, so far so good, so far so good.’ But it’s not how far you fall that matters. It’s how you land.” Saïd repeats the skyscraper story at the end but changes “guy” to “society.” Hubert who never held one before is now holding a gun. There are many ways to fall but only one way to land if you want to stay alive. In his inaugural speech, President Kennedy said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” Lack of respect and resources keep people from crossing the bridge. The class you are in becomes the country to which you belong.
Tova Gannana writes for the Seattle Art Museum Film Department and CSA Hitchcock.
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