La Haine

Dir: Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995. Starring: Vincent Cassel, Houbert Kounde, Said Taghmaoui. Foreign. French.
La Haine
“It’s not the fall that kills, but the way you land.”

—Hubert’s philosophical metaphor of falling is emotionally applied to survival in the projects in 1995’s La Haine.

La Haine
 (translated Hate) prologues with actual news footage of rioting in the suburban projects of Paris. Parked cars are lit aflame and buildings trashed as a female news anchor reports on the riots. After a teen was severely beaten by police while handcuffed in their custody, the projects erupted with a wave of violence and looting. The victim, a minority, was left in critical condition, the reporter notes and suddenly, the TV set shuts off—the audience is in for a radically different telling of the situation. The film then opens on Saïd, an Arabian man in his twenties, facing off before a line of policemen in riot gear. The camera slowly moves down the line of the stoic squadron, each face a white copy of the last. At the end of the vilified line, Saïd stealthily spray paints the back of their police van. "Fuck the police," he writes, and then runs away through the projects. 

La Haine
, written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, follows three young minorities through the course of a day as they survive life in the projects of suburban Paris. Saïd (played by Saïd Taghmaoui) is the wiliest of the group with a loud mouth and free-spirited swagger. Vinz, a Jew (played by a young Vincent Cassel), is the more angry and volatile personality with something to prove.  Hubert, an African boxer (played by Hubert Kounde), is the wisest and more pensive of the trio with high ambitions. In the wake of the recent police beating and subsequent rioting, the three wander throughout the projects, interacting with various colorful characters, including, much to the trio's chagrin, the ever-present police. The trio's bond, at once volatile and assured, is displayed in subtle detail as they enter their different contexts. Through these, the audience gets to know these well-rounded and intricate characters. Even as the three men relentlessly mock and harass each other (as men tend to do), there lies a foundational understanding and trust between them. They are, in essence, brothers. Worn and matured by their environment, a hardened cynical outlook belies their boyish shenanigans. The film's timeline, broken up into chapters titled by the current time of day, creates an ominous feeling that the film is indeed headed towards something significant. This tension is further heightened when Vinz reveals a handgun he found on the street. His previous vow to kill a cop if the beating victim dies is taken more seriously as the film builds to an explosive and perhaps inevitable climax.

The mostly documentary-style camera movement employed in La Haine may have been an economical and pragmatic necessity, but it injects an appropriate energy into the film, complementing the state of flux the characters find themselves in throughout the course of the day. The camera is almost always handheld, but never shaky. Rather, it glides and weaves near and around the characters with seamless fluidity, constantly providing panoramic perspectives. When a new character comes into frame and speaks, the camera moves around and behind to shoot the facing character instead of cutting to a new angle; this along with the use of deep-focused lenses provides both a strong sense of surrounding environment, and allows the audience a sense of real time and space to be felt. Although the shots are at times long and spontaneous, Kassovitz makes them feel controlled, the film still feeling very cinematic, that is, fictionalized. Indeed, the film's black and white cinematography and Kassovitz's distinct and sure style detaches La Haine from reality. His isn't an objective, unmanipulated view of life in the projects. But neither does he fully polish or glamorize the world. Instead, he lands somewhere in between with a blend of cinematic fashion and gritty realism that ultimately gives the film its power.

Kassovitz's portrayal of the issue (still existing today) is one both complicated and sympathetic. The projects in La Haine, like others around the world, are populated mostly by poor minorities. The three friends (each ethnically distinct) come from very different home lives and families; yet because their class is shared they are equals, united against the abuse of authorities. This integration and camaraderie felt by the divergent races is in stark contrast to urban America, which finds its first and central identity in familiar racial groups. And because French culture is steeped in both heritage and cultural purity, it's no surprise bigotry exists towards outlying migrant ethnic groups. Kassovitz, himself the son of immigrants to France, makes a powerful statement with La Haine. His underlying message: "Hate begets hate" is solved by mutual understanding and respect. Kassovitz employs this philosophy himself in La Haine, tempering his ire towards the police by humanizing certain members. An ethnic police officer, in the midst of surrounding verbal aggression, reaches out to help Saïd. Later, a young rookie watches in veiled disgust as two other officers mercilessly beat and harass Saïd and Hubert at the police station. They instruct the officer through demonstration how to inflict the most pain. It is the education of hate which perpetuates it —hate begetting hate. 

Both critically and commercially successful upon its 1995 release, La Haine struck a political and social nerve with its depiction of police brutality and racial discrimination outside of Paris. Inspired by the actual 1993 killing of a young African while in police custody, La Haine serves as an informative expose to an uninformed public of real life in the projects. Shot on location with experiences taken from Kassovitz's own life, its goal is to engender understanding and empathy for those disadvantaged.  Ultimately, it expresses that core struggle for happiness apathetically felt by so many poor urban minorities. That fight, both racially and economically uphill, is frequently sabotaged by the abuse of power. Like Costa Gavras's 1969 thriller Z (to which the film has drawn comparisons), La Haine proclaimed a loud political message to these abuses as it was immediately embraced and employed to represent a group of people previously overlooked and discounted. To this day, it still carries that same relevance and impact, not just in France (as the issue has far from resolved) but around the world, making it an important film both culturally and artistically.

Posted by:
Robbie Ikegami
Jan 11, 2012 5:46pm
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