It’s a quarter of a century since La Haine‘s original release, its win for Best Director at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and its stunning worldwide acclaim. Mathieu Kassovitz’s account of police brutality is as ferocious a punch in the stomach as it was twenty-five years ago, and retains every spark of an explosive deconstruction of France’s treatment of minorities and widening social inequality.
Driven to fear, misunderstanding and ultimately hatred by a society engaged in a civil war of abuse and mutual disrespect, neither side of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide has any hope for a peaceable resolution. History has repeated itself many times, both in France and elsewhere, since the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Makomé M’Bowole in police custody in April 1993. This murder provided the catalyst for Kassovitz’s landmark second feature and Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé and Saïd Taghmaoui are the close-knit jewish, black and arabic trio of pals at the raging heart of the film.
An alternative tricolore, a triptych of marginalised, and frequently demonised, constituents of French society, they are pushed to breaking point after a night of rioting sees one of their contemporaries gravely wounded by the police. “They’ll see we’re not turning the other cheek anymore,” says Cassel’s Vinz. The tightly wound, livewire of the gang, he finds, conceals and plans to use a gun found during the riots to take revenge for their friend by killing a cop. Retaining their real-life first names, Kassovitz surrounds his defiant leading men with non-professionals and inhabitants of the estate on which La Haine was set and filmed, to tremendous effect.
The cast and crew lived on site for the best part of six months, during pre-production and the shoot, and the benefits shine through in every scene. Their goal was to garner the trust of the community in order to better represent them with a truthful, collaborative film, at a time when mainstream media exaggerated the hellish conditions of ‘les cités’ for the sake of ratings and newspaper sales. The rich, naturalistic performances, improvisations, slang and striking visuals of La Haine’s locales and characters create a documentary-like realism, which is reinforced by intermittent library footage of Paris riots in the early 1990s.
It must be said that women are alarmingly absent throughout; sisters are very much off limits and mothers appear powerless to prevent, and largely unopposed to, their sons from theft and dealing drugs to make ends meet. And where are the fathers or male role models? Vinz sees murder as a means to prove himself a man, Saïd is the joker of the pack and really just wants to get laid, and Hubert sells hashish to put food on the table for his mother and siblings after his boxing gym is burned down. Helplessness and lack of opportunity or direction are strands of a thorough indictment of life on the estates, what it takes to “get out” and just how distant, intangible liberté, égalité and fraternité all are for these young men. Whilst committed to a fair and accurate depiction of this milieu, Kassovitz has insisted that La Haine is not an anti-police film, evidently wary of how it might incite audiences.
It is clear from his exploration of the act of killing – by will, bigotry or misfortune – which leads to an ambiguous, shocking conclusion, that the director sits firmly on the side of the oppressed. Yet he doesn’t go so far as to lay all the blame at the feet of the police. Seamlessly paired with the punchy verisimilitude of its script and performances are numerous layers of cultural intertextuality. Visionary technical flourishes demonstrate both the sophomore director’s skill, as well as the influence of American cinema (Taxi Driver, Scarface, Vertigo) and music (Bob Marley, French rap, Isaac Hayes and a wondrous aerial shot to the backing of Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien).
And though initially shot on colour film, for budgetary reasons, the black and white print (given a 4K enhancement for this re-release) makes La Haine crisp, timeless and colour-blind, in contrast to the systemic racism exhibited in a number of galling passages. La Haine is kinetic, frenetic, and yet very well composed from first to last. It is Hubert’s calm rhetorical meditation of “So far, so good. So far, so good…,” and sardonic tale of a man who repeats this phrase to himself as he falls to his death from a skyscraper, that bookends the film. What happens when a society does hit rock bottom? Has 2020 finally been the landing, the awakening that is needed? Is there a common ground that all sides can at last meet upon? La Haine doesn’t proffer any easy answers, and that is one of its many, many strengths. Let’s just hope we’re not still asking those same questions in another twenty-five years from now.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63