La Haine: 25 Years On
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary since the iconoclastic drama La Haine (1995) first hit the box offices. To celebrate, on the 23rd November the British Film Institute is releasing a limited edition 2-disc Blu-Ray set containing several special features and the 4K remaster which has been showing across a select few cinemas since September.
Watching this polemical feature for the first time in 2020, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been made this year as the brutal impact of its themes of police brutality, racism and inequality stings just as much as it did in the 90s. In a Q&A with the BFI, director Mathieu Kassovitz is asked whether the film could have been made today; he responds bluntly “you tell me.”
Kassovitz started writing the screenplay in 1993 on the day that Makomé M’Bowole, a young man from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), was fatally shot at point blank range by a police officer during interrogation in a Paris police station for allegedly stealing cigarettes. The tragic unfairness of the incident struck him as he found himself wondering “When he got up that day, there was no indication of what would happen. He’d done nothing to justify that, so what happened?”
Through La Haine he sought to express his puzzlement and anger at how what should have been a regular day for an ordinary adolescent could escalate to this bloody spectacle. Therefore, the film tracks a day in the life of three friends during the aftermath of anti-police brutality riots in reaction to learning their friend had been hospitalised by a police attack.
Vinz (played by Vincent Cassel), a young Jewish man of an aggressively activist bent, reveals that he has recovered a cop’s .44 Magnum revolver that was lost in the previous night’s chaos to his friends Hubert (Hubert Koundé), an Afro-French boxer whose more cautious and rational manner contrasts with Vinz’s agitation, and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), who is of Arab descent and serves as a more playful character to mediate between the other two.
The three meander through their banlieue, or suburban housing project, during the day before venturing into central Paris for the night as they worry about their friend’s fate and contemplate what to do with the gun. Throughout the several vignettes that play out over the course of their aimless adventure, the dialogue always comes back to Vinz’s carnivorous desire to use the gun for revenge in kind – “to even up the score [and] get respect” – and Hubert’s urges for restraint, recognising the futility of retaliation, echoing the Malcolm X vs. MLK motif that runs through Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
The sudden and unceremonious climax of this film feels simultaneously predetermined and contingent. Kassovitz began writing it knowing exactly how it would end before he knew how the first ninety-two minutes would go, so in a way it was predetermined. But the intended gut-wrenching effect of the ninety-third minute owes to the first ninety-two’s demonstration of how sheer contingency has brought us here.
The brutal ending and its preceding mundanity are perfectly captured by the metaphor with which the La Haine is bookended. Opening the film is a video of a Molotov cocktail slowly hurtling towards an image of the world. A voiceover asks the audience, “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: ‘So far so good… so far so good… so far so good.’ How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!” And the cocktail crashes against world, engulfing it in flames. At the end of the film, the voiceover returns to confirm it is “about a society falling”.
The social-realist message is consolidated in the film’s style as well as its structure. Kassovitz said that the small budget dictated his choice to eschew colour and film in black & white, but also argued that B&W lends it a certain timelessness anyway as it avoids looking dated a few decades down the line, as he claimed was the fate of some colourful 1980s movies. He also opts to use as few cuts as possible in a single scene, preferring the more sublime tracking shot in order to maintain perspective.
As the film is split in two halves, the first in the banlieue and the second in the city, so is the cinematography. While in their housing project, Vinz, Saïd and Hubert are recorded with a wide-angle lens in order to incorporate their environment into the background and show that they belong there. Once in Paris, cinematographer Pierre Aïm shot with mostly long-lens cameras from a distance as they blur the background and focus on the characters, showing how they are alienated from the bourgeois centre of the metropolis. This deliberate transition is best represented in the first scene to take place in central Paris, where a Vertigo-style dolly zoom pulls away from a bustling Parisian vista while the lens zooms in on the main characters as they come into the field of view, thus foregrounding the characters and distorting the unfamiliar background.
Even in its production, Kassovitz was relentlessly committed to the social-realism. Giving the characters with the same names as the actors gave it a further edge of authenticity. He also arranged for the actors and crew to live on set together in a couple of apartments they rented for two months in the Chanteloup-les-Vignes housing project, the only one of fifteen projects to accept their request to film. Kassovitz explained that they couldn’t have just turned up, filmed and vacated each day without integrating with and respecting the locals. Had this been the case, “it would have ended with stones thrown and a hasty retreat”, much like the scene in the film itself where Vinz, Saïd and Hubert pelt a news crew with stones after they started recording them minding their own business like in a safari park.
In post-production, no score or soundtrack was added, except for the intermittent ticking clock that appears along with the title cards telling the time. All music is diegetic, involved strictly as part of the environment rather than as an outside influence trying to “manipulate the emotions” of the audience, as Kassovitz protested in an interview. This means the on-screen action speaks for itself, taking place in a vacuum of stunned silence or a cacophony of real-world urban noise.
Upon release La Haine immediately cemented itself in cinema’s canon of rebellion. In fact, shortly after its release some more riots broke out in Paris following the death of another youth being chased by the police, which led ghoulish figures such as then-leader of the far-right Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to exclaim “Do these yobs have La Haine? Send them to jail!” (One is reminded of the reliable maxim that “you can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies”.) Its abrasive confidence explodes through the screen as characters like Vinz emulate the rage of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and director Kassovitz consciously evokes Spike Lee in thematic and stylistic regards. The history of 2020 will read like a particularly thick volume in the encyclopaedia of injustice, so the rerelease of La Haine is a necessary corrective to any “so far so good” complacency.