920. La haine / Hate (1995, Matthieu Kassovitz)

screened Wednesday May 2 2007 on Criterion DVD in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #717 IMDb

This movie rocked me. It's as simple as that. I left my seat thinking here is a young filmmaker who finally has the maturity and depth to deal with urban unrest without losing his soul. Mathieu Kassovitz talks about 'hate' with love and humanity, something I haven't seen in the myriad of American urban genre films. That's what makes La Haine so powerful. In a Europe so saturated with American culture and its media barrage of violent images, there is a young disenfranchised generation emerging from the embers. One that has its own identity, its own wounds... Someone better talk about it before it explodes.

- Jodie Foster (whose company distributed La Haine in the United States - she also introduces the Criterion DVD - still from intro above courtesy of DVD Beaver)

I'm working on both a DVD review for Reverse Shot as well as another video essay (will probably be a sequence analysis to supplement the Reverse Shot general review). In the meantime I'm putting together notable links and quotes I've found from the web as I gather my own thoughts. Overall I've noticed two things in my gleanings: 1) the consensus seems to be much more enthusiastic than my own impressions; 2) there's much made about the sociological significance of the film, to the point that it seems to overshadow discussion of the film in cinematic terms -- something I hope to redress on my own. It's safe to say that La Haine is generally considered among the most important French films of the last 15 years. Recent events have only served to underscore its relevance. Scott Tobias of the Onion AV Club provides a concise snapshot:

After the Paris suburbs erupted in violence in summer 2005, some renewed attention was paid to Mathieu Kassovitz's bracing 1995 feature La Haine (or Hate, as it was released here), which documented with raw verve the rupture between the authorities and the disenfranchised, mostly immigrant youth. Though the film won Kassovitz a Best Director prize at Cannes, it divided critics into two camps: Those who found it a dazzling, urgent piece of new French realism, and those who dismissed it as slick, Hollywood-influenced attitudinizing... La Haine contains a few false notes, but they go hand-in-hand with the young punk energy and anger that animates nearly every shot. Kassovitz participated in the riots that inspired the film, and he aligns himself defiantly with an immigrant generation that's been left out of the discussion.

Much like Do The Right Thing in reverse, La Haine covers a day in the life after a riot, this one sparked by the hospitalization of an Arab teenager due to police brutality. Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, and Saïd Taghmaoui play best friends—a Jew, an African, and an Arab, respectively—who embark on a 24-hour odyssey after Cassel finds a missing police revolver and vows revenge if the brutality victim dies. Much of the film follows the trio as they flee from one place to another, and after a while, it becomes clear that they don't really belong anywhere, like street kids constantly getting shuffled off the corners.

This review from filmreference.com exemplifies how a lot of reviews I've encountered seem to nod along with the implicit thesis of the film, discussing it as if it were documentary footage of sociologically self-evident value. Another example is this erudite article from the Stanford Humanities Review, which offers more background on the film's banlieu settings than on the film itself. The last line attests to the socio-political role the film has willingly assumed: "In Matthieu Kassovitz, the banlieues have found their Zola."

Indeed, Kassovitz has made a cause of the underprivileged in France, culminating in the wake of the 2005 riots with a tete-a-tete on Kassovitz's personal website between Kassovitz and French Minister of the Interior Nicholas Sarkozy. The heated exchange of messages is worth reading especially in light of the French presidential election only two days away (May 7), with right-wing Sarkozy the front-runner against Socialist candidate Segolene Royal. Here's a choice excerpt from Kassovitz:

Nicolas Sarkozy, who has appeared in the media like a starlet from American Idol and who for the past few years has been showering us with details of his private life and political ambitions, cannot stop himself from creating an event every time his ratings go down. This time, Sarkozy (who last week described the rioters as “scum”) has gone against everything the French republic stands for: the liberty, the equality and the fraternity of a people. The minister of the interior, a future presidential candidate, holds ideas that not only reveal his inexperience of politics and human relations, but which also illuminate the purely demagogical and egocentric aspects of a puny, would-be Napoleon.

If the suburbs are exploding once again today, it is not due to being generally fed up with the conditions of life that entire generations of “immigrants” must fight with every day. These burning cars are [in direct response to] the lack of respect the minister of the interior has shown towards their community. Sarkozy does not like this community. He wants to get rid of these “punks” with high-pressure water hoses, and he shouts it loud and clear right in the middle of a “hot” neighborhood at 11 in the evening. The response is in the streets. “Zero tolerance” works both ways. It is intolerable that a politician should allow himself to upset a situation made tense by years of ignorance and injustice, and openly threaten an entire segment of the French population.

From Sarkozy's reply:

You [Kassovitz] seem to be acquainted with the suburbs well enough to know, deep inside you, that the situation has been tense there for many years and that the unrest is deep-rooted. Your film La haine, shot in 1995, already showed this unease that right-wing and left-wing governments had to deal with, with varying results. To claim this crisis is down to the Minister of the Interior’s sayings and doings is yet another way of missing the point. I attributed this to an untimely and quick-tempered reaction.

The second thing that shocked me is that you seem to clearly speak up for the minority, made of looters, rather than for the majority, made of families and young people who live in the suburbs too and who are sick of seeing the culture of violence and of power struggle undermine our legally constituted state. Why not speak up for those whose cars were burnt, and who are now deprived of a hard-earned tool, synonymous with work and freedom? Why not mention the young people whose gyms were burned down and the children whose schools were destroyed? Moreover, why not write a single word about the 110 injured policemen, the firemen hit by stones, the insulted doctors? Your emotional affinity with the suburban youths is understandable and respectable, but I feel that it leads you to accept the unacceptable. To make common cause with a minority whose actions are reprehensible, or even murderous in some cases, is not helping the situation in the suburbs. I even believe it has the reverse effect. To live in a working-class district or to be the son of immigrant parents or grandparents gives you no right to throw Molotov cocktails at the police and stones at firemen. To intimate the contrary is, in my opinion, to insult all those who behave as responsible citizens in similar living conditions.

Ginette Vincendeau, author of a book-length study on La Haine (available online in its entirety on Google Books!), discusses the Sarkozy-Kassovitz debate in her essay in the Criterion DVD booklet:

Sarkozy points out that Kassovitz’s blog concentrates on the violent minority rather than the whole population. This is true of La haine too. The film gives a vibrant portrayal of youth culture—their clothes, their music, and their colorful language, known as verlan (an ancient form of back slang, revived in the 1970s, in which syllables are inverted—té-ci instead of ci-té, for example—and that unmistakably points to banlieue identity). Nevertheless, the film’s focus is narrow, choosing the violent and the spectacular above the more mundane everyday...

La haine thus continues to generate heated debate thanks to its close relationship with some of the most traumatic social and political events in contemporary France.... At the same time, it would be wrong to see the film as only a phénomène de société. La haine has had such an impact also because it is a brilliant film, with stylish widescreen noir photography and virtuoso camera work. It captured a young generation on the brink, caught between French culture and that of their parents, and in love with American rap music and cinema. Last but not least, it is blessed with three exhilarating performances, by Cassel, Koundé, and Taghmaoui. La haine has social relevance, but it also possesses a raw energy and all the ingredients of a cult movie: a young director, attractive young stars, humor, violence, style—in one word, cool.

The coolness factor of La Haine is one issue I take with the film, insofar as, in the process of constructing an easily consumable counter-culture appeal, it risks superficializing the issues driving the social desperation on of its characters. Along these lines, Matt Feeney of Slate offers a thoughtful dissent on the film:

La Haine suffers, finally, from the same weakness that afflicts a lot of supposedly realist film. In its tight, ground-level focus, it's all trees and no forest. Instead of social analysis, you get sentimentality, a one-sided empathy. Granted, Kassovitz uses strident chumminess rather than melodrama, but the sense of being told what to feel is basically the same. The social and political problems contributing to France's immigrant problem are complex and possibly intractable, and La Haine gives us wayward but good-hearted kids against legions of evil cops.

Richard Armstrong offers a rebuttal to Feeney and one of the most laudatory pieces on the film.

Another thing that strikes me is how, for a movie with such an incendiary reputation, much of the story is occupied with little of narrative importance. Conversations are full of bluster and either flare up into fleeting outbursts or drift harmlessly into dead ends.  In his review, Roger Ebert argues eloquently that this lack of substantial narrative is itself the substance of the film:

What underlies everything they do is the inescapable fact that they have nothing to do. They have no jobs, no prospects, no serious hopes of economic independence, no money, few ways to amuse themselves except by hanging out. They are not bad kids, not criminals, not particularly violent (the boxer is theleast violent), but they have been singled out by age, ethnicity and appearance as probable troublemakers.

Indeed, this is one of the brilliant strokes of the film, that the dead spaces allow us to share the feeling of restlessness and pointlessness to the lives in view.   Still, it can veer dangerously into indulgence, especially towards the end as the impact of the salty dialogue starts to wear out and you wonder if the film will come to any point before it compensates big time with a hard-hitting didactic finale.  And perhaps I betray a national bias, but at times the punchy banter embellished with ostentatious camerawork strike me as being more than a little indebted to the likes of Scorsese and Spike Lee. But the following passage, taken from an online lecture on La Haine as part of a French contemporary culture class at the University of Sunderland, UK, helped me appreciate just what a breakthrough the film was along the established lines of French filmmaking in the 1990s:

In rather crude terms, French cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s is dominated by two main trends: the so-called `heritage' film (`le cinéma du patrimoine') and the so-called `le cinéma du look' (also known as `cinéma du Forum des Halles').

Claude Berri's Jean de Florette (1985) and Manon des Sources (1986) and Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) are examples of the first trend and enjoyed national and international sucess. `Heritage' films are often literary adaptations made on a large budget with well-known stars. The `heritage' film refers back to the tradition de qualité that the filmmakers of la nouvelle vague rejected in the late 1950s and 1960s. `Heritage' film also appealed to a large audience through their depiction of the passions and intrigues of rural France in earlier, and perhaps, simpler times.

Luc Besson's Subway (1985) and Nikita (1990); Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva (1981) and 370 2 le matin (1986); and Léos Carax's Boy meets Girl (1984), Mauvais sang (1986) and Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991) are examples of the second dominant trend. Often set, as the name suggests, in Paris (Diva, Subway, Les Amants du Pont Neuf), these films are marked by their preoccupation with style and surface - they have been likened to both images in advertisments and to MTV video clips - and by their unashamedly escapist intent. Full of implausible characters and plots (a female assassin from a secret state organisation, a subterrean criminal community living in the métro etc.) and highly stylized action sequences (car chases, fights etc.), these films also appealed to a wide audience in both France and throughout the rest of the world and some - Luc Besson's Nikita springs to mind - were remade by Hollywood.

What both trends have in common is their avoidance of any serious representation of problems and issues in contemporary France, although arguably Carax's Mauvais sang (le sida) and Les Amants du Pont Neuf (les nouveaux pauvres) are something of an exception here. It could be claimed that the Mitterand years presided over a kind of consensus about what kind of cinema was appropriate for France at the time. The problems of unemployment, social unrest in the suburbs, increasing racial tensions and the rise of the Front National were all absent from French cinema screens.

More to come on Reverse Shot and on video. In the meantime, some other links:

La Haine entry on Wikipedia DVD Talk extensive review of the Criterion DVD

DVD Beaver even more extensive review of the Criterion DVD DVD Verdict review