All Night Matinee:
1. La Haine (1995)
One thing you notice when you look back at the response to La Haine since its release in 1995 is that at every significant anniversary, somebody has written an article comparing “then” to “now”. They mostly observe how little has changed in the intervening years, and it wouldn’t be hard for someone writing in 2020 to reflect on the death of George Floyd and draw similar conclusions. La Haine is now regarded as an authoritative account of the events that inspired it, an indisputable point of comparison from which we can measure progress, or a lack thereof. It is a work of fiction that has become an unassailable truth.
The events that inspired La Haine were the riots that occurred in the early nineties in the Parisian ‘banlieues’ – deprived suburban areas on the edge of Paris – and specifically the deaths of two young Arab men, Makome M’Bowole and Malik Oussekine. And in a perhaps unsurprising historical symmetry, riots closely followed the release of the film; June 1995 saw extensive unrest in Noisy-le-Grand, provoked by the death of Belkakem Belhabib, another young Arab male.
But La Haine focusses on the aftermath of the riots, only briefly covering the actual events with a montage of documentary footage. By beginning the film in this way, and by setting the action to Bob Marley’s Burnin’ and Lootin’, the makers clearly set out their stall – expect social realism and a rebel yell.
The rest of the film follows the three main characters – Hubert, Vinz and Said – as they wait to find out if their friend, Abdel, who has been beaten up by police during the preceding night’s riot, will survive his injuries. If he dies, Vinz has sworn to retaliate, to “smoke a cop” with the police pistol he has found. This is the film’s central dynamic and the primary source of tension, accentuated by the ticking clock that both marks the episodes of their day and counts down like a time bomb.
“Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far everything is ok… so far everything is ok… so far everything is ok. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!”
La Haine’s title was originally going to be “So Far Everything Is Ok”, in reference to the darkly comedic story told three times over the course of the film, most poignantly at the end when Hubert’s voiceover reapplies the image – rather than a man, it is now society that is crashing down, all the while telling itself that “so far everything is ok’.
Hubert, Vinz and Said function as a kind of three-headed ‘every-youth’. Each of them represents one of the dominant immigrant backgrounds in les banlieues; Hubert is black African, Vinz is white Jewish and Said is Arab – the “Black, Blanc, Beure” of contemporary French slang. And between them they dramatise the different facets of the conflicts they face. Hubert’s response to the riots is despair, Vinz’s is anger and Said’s is resolute backchat. Hubert wants to leave, Vinz wants to fight back, and Said wants to ignore it all in favour of the pursuit of women and wealth.
La Haine is divided (almost exactly) into two halves. The first is set in les banlieues – the shots are wide and spacious, often long single takes, and the pace is easy-going. While the characters we meet don’t seem to do very much, and while a sense of hopeless boredom is never far away, the picture is not unremittingly negative. In many ways the reverse is true. Kassovitz went to great lengths to get to know and understand the residents of the location they had chosen and spent several weeks living there prior to filming. And it paid off, as can be seen in the relaxed authenticity of the characters that were played by actual residents. So while there may be little ‘egalite’ and not much ‘liberte’, there is an abundance of ‘fraternite’. This isn’t a picture of violent, dysfunctional youth out of control – it’s a picture of a community entertaining itself because it has nothing else to do.
The second half of the film is set in central Paris – and immediately everything becomes a little darker, more claustrophobic, angular, anxious. Despite being told by a poster that “Le Monde set a vous” (“the world is yours”), Hubert, Vinz and Said are like foreigners in a strange town. Said can’t believe a policeman calls him “sir” and they are thrown out of an art gallery by a man who describes them as “troubled youth”. Asterix cons Vinz with a sleight of hand trick, making him look like an unsophisticated hick. Hubert and Said are arrested, beaten up and humiliated by the police, and only escape a second beating because Vinz terrifies the incoming skinheads with his gun.
La Haine is taut with meaning – there’s hardly a line or a shot that isn’t loaded, and even the glibbest banter has far-reaching significance. In an exchange that is easy to miss, Vinz’s grandmother remarks that “if we all ran away from arguments there would be a stampede already” and Said replies “But we’d all be going the same way”, almost defining himself in that single line as someone who likes to run with the crowd.
In one of the film’s many Scorcese references, we watch Vinz as he impersonates Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver in the mirror. Vinz thinks he is imitating a tough guy because that’s all he sees in Bickle, but the reality is that he is imitating an intensely flawed and ultimately doomed misfit. A few scenes later, in a direct echo, we see Said impersonating a cartoon character, Señor Duck in the same way. And much later on, in a scene in a public toilet, the camera disorientates the viewer by shooting the mirrored reflections of the characters in ways that are hard to make sense of.
The film also frequently references a distrust of the media. The news report at the start of the film abruptly cuts mid-sentence to Said’s face with his eyes closed. The fence’s TV is broken. The film crew that tries to engage with Hubert, VInz and Said is absurd.
And then, just as we’re getting used to spotting layers of meaning, the film confounds us with some brilliantly oblique moments – Vinz’s cow visions are never explained and Said himself complains that he doesn’t know why the old man told them the story of Grunwalski. As an audience, we’re not entirely sure either, but we try to interpret it all the same.
La Haine is a hiphop film. There’s breaking, there’s graffiti (or at least tagging) and there’s scratching. Cut Killer’s mashup of Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regret Rien and NTM’s Nique La Police perfectly captures the culture clash between the old French establishment and the new American anti-establishment that second-generation immigrants were experiencing. There are trainers, there are tracksuits, there is bling. And the language is hiphop – there is slang (including ‘vernal’, a revived form of seventies black street slang) and there is rap.
Also like hiphop, La Haine references its predecessors and is steeped in Americana – Vinz’s imitation of Travis Bickle is basically a visual sample of Taxi Driver and the various boxing motifs echo Raging Bull. The shot of the train pulling away from the station and leaving the protagonists in a hostile part of the city reminds us of a similar shot in ‘The Warriors’. And La Haine’s use of eclectic and varied music has been compared to Scorcese’s in Mean Streets, but could equally be compared to the wide range of music sampled in hiphop.
Kassovitz said in an interview that he knew the ending of La Haine before he knew the story, and there is a strong sense that everything has been leading up to this point. It has been Vinz’s journey we have watched – Hubert and Said have remained constant. Only Vinz has really changed. And in many ways the film is over before the final scene – Vinz has given up his belief in movie justice and the filmic right to retribution. The fantasy has been played out and found to be just that – a fantasy. The central tension has been resolved and the characters walk off into the sunrise of a new day..
Which is what makes those final shots, overseen by Rimbaud and Baudelaire, so utterly devastating. In the closing few seconds, everything is turned on its head, as though the ending of the film rejects the logic of what has come before. And just as it begins with Said opening his eyes, La Haine ends with him closing them. He knows it doesn’t matter how they fall and he doesn’t want to know how they land.
EJG, July 21