La Haine

(Mathieu Kassovitz, France, 1995)


La Haine (“Hate”) is a very compelling drama, remarkable on many levels. It has an off-beat, provocative energy, veering consistently between tasteless, vulgar glee and a grimly tragic social consciousness. It’s intensely topical, concerning the violent conflicts between police and the community in a horrid, rundown, suburban centre of France – a banlieue in the commune of Chanteloup-les-Vignes. This community is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, mixing Jewish, Arabic and Algerian communities (among others). There are three main characters – Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) – three youths who stand for these various social groupings in angry alliance against the police “pigs”.


But this is not – I am very glad to report – a neat social-issue movie with emblematic characters, clearly marked conflicts, and wish-fulfilment resolutions. It’s more vibrant and messier than any simple sociological schema – and, in an intriguing way, resistant, rousing and life-affirming precisely because of that chaos factor. I think this is true of La Haine even when it goes bombastic and fatalistic like a Geoffrey Wright special (Romper Stomper  [1992] or Metal Skin  [1995]), playing on an all-pervasive sense of dread, social breakdown and imminent urban apocalypse.


One of the best strategies of La Haine is that, for long and captivating stretches, it’s easy to lose track of its somewhat alarmist social agenda. This happens because we, and the film, get very interested in just following Vinz, Hubert & Saïd around. They are completely pumped-up – pumped with rage and frustration, naturally, but also with less socially determined energies: adrenalin, wild humour, and a desperation not to be bored. These three are on a headlong, everyday adventure: from their suburb into the Paris centre and back again, over the course of a day and night. We see them stealing, breaking into cars, barging in on people and places, looking for things to do – trying to kill time.


In other words, they’re the kind of figures familiar from a particularly vivid and jagged kind of teen movie – the JD (juvenile delinquent) film. I’m thinking of brashly energetic films like Over the Edge (1979) with Matt Dillon, or startling French movies such as Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Sound and Fury (1988) and Patricia Mazuy’s Travolta et moi   (1994), or (from Australia, in a more punk vein) Going Down  (1983). In none of these films is a certain social conscience or social concern entirely absent; what complicates the social critique, however, and really brings it alive is a certain intense emotional identification on the filmmaker’s part with the outlaw, smashing-out energy of these fine young delinquent heroes and heroines.


La Haine is directed by Matthieu Kassovitz; it’s his second feature after the comedy romance of Métisse (aka Café au lait, 1993). He is unafraid to convey his social themes by raiding every one of this favourite cinematic styles. He borrows the crazy camera moves, kinetic editing and manic ticking clocks of Martin Scorsese. He uses freewheeling actor improvisations, caught in long, bumpy, mobile takes that have travelled (more or less) from the American films of John Cassavetes through to the French films of Maurice Pialat or Cyril Collard’s extraordinary Savage Nights (1992), and then back to the American films of Nick Gomez (New Jersey Drive, 1995). And, being a hip, young rapper (as the French media like to portray him), Kassovitz also obligingly steals a few agonising, violent clinches from Quentin Tarantino movies. In fact, the whole narrative set-up of this film – one of the three JDs gets a cop’s gun, and so you wait forever for that damn thing to go off in the least expected and worst possible way – is in itself a black comedy reminiscent of the suspense build-up in much Tarantino.


The combination of all these influences with the content of the film really sparks. In a way, I think Kassovitz bridges the British cinema of social conscience – Ken Loach, for instance – and the more purely movie-loving sector of contemporary French cinema, such as the high-flying, anarchic poetry of Leos Carax.


A lot of La Haine’s power comes through the soundtrack. When reviewers say that, they are usually referring only to the music (and maybe even to that music on a detachable, autonomous CD, rather than how it functions inside the movie itself!); but music is just one part of a total, well-designed soundtrack. As writer-director-musician Philip Brophy has often said: a film is 100% image and 100% sound (do the math!). Or, at least, it should be. Here, it is the complete weave of voices, noise effects, and various treatments of bits of music that matters. The sound mix is amazing.


La Haine has that kind of intricate complexity. Not a fussy kind of intricacy – rather, it has an immediate, visceral impact, which is why a lot of viewers won’t even quite catc what’s materially going on in the soundreack. And concentrating on reading the subtitles won’t help you with really hearing this film, either. Because, often, the approximate sense of the words being uttered by the characters is less significant and less impactful than the entire, harsh sensuality of the constant, modulating stream of noise, music, and vocal growls or hisses.


A few examples of this sound work. La Haine begins with newsreel video footage, under the rapid-fire credits, of riots between police and the people who live in this rundown banlieue. On the soundtrack, we hear – in the conventionally full, movie-theme way, Bob Marley’s song “Burnin’ and Lootin’”. A reggae song, and it has that characteristically easy lilt which belies the savage realities that are reflected upon in its lyrics – “burning all illusions tonight”, as the song promises. Once the credits end, and the first image of the fiction proper starts, the film cuts to complete silence. We see Saïd standing solitary and anxious in a courtyard. The camera moves in closer; now we see that he has his eyes shut. When he opens them, the sound of this urban space floods into the movie: a fantastic, hard poetic effect. Then there’s a dislocating cut in the image track, and the image is now positioned right around at the back of Saïd’s head. The camera lifts, and we view what has been opposite Saïd all along: a large phalanx of attack cops at the ready. As the film surveys this grim vigil, we hear a faint, distant, reverbarating echo, almost unrecognisable now, of  “Burnin’ and Lootin’”. The effect of this “re-placed” musical reference is unforgettably chilling.


It should be clear, just from these opening moments, how sound is related to the internal perceptions of the characters. “Subjective” sound of this type – Krzysztof Kieślowski did a lot for this dubious cause in his somewhat overwrought Three Colours: Blue (1993) – has swiftly become a new fad or affectation in the film industry at all its levels, from training school to blockbuster. Even more tellingly, however, in the case of La Haine, the sound mix captures what it’s like to experience external sound within a specific, physical space. This architectural, urban space that becomes a kind of theatre-in-the-round for the playing out of public, communal tensions. Kassovitz goes further in evoking these physical sensations of the urban environment than Spike Lee did in Do the Right Thing (1989).


There’s another extraordinary sequence – one that most people do tend to “hear”, since sound is its focal point, its very subject. There is a young, wired-up DJ at the window of his small apartment in a block of flats. This spectacle reminded me of the terrific American teen movie, Pump Up the Volume (1990) – maybe the kid’s parents are right in the next room, trying to watch TV. He’s even more like the radio DJ in Do the Right Thing, whose broadcasts become an integral part of the material texture of the street, indeed the whole block, in the ghetto where he dwells. At any rate, the guy in La Haine – it’s actually the famous, Moroccan-born DJ Cut Killer aka Anouar Hajoui – sets up huge speakers facing out of his window into a courtyard, and then begins doing a lightning mix of various records: a sample of Édith Piaf singing “No, je ne regrette rien” is ironically collided with “Sound of da police” by KRS-One and “Police” by hip hop rap group NTM, forming the sonic collage “Nique la Police”. And as it plays, the camera takes to the sky (somehow!) and surveys the buildings, the tops of trees.


It’s exhilarating and scary, lyrical and despairing, all at once. The further away the camera gets, the more the music booms in the distance, melting into the geography of this urban space. Finally, we get a shot of two of our heroes far away, looking up to the sky as they bask in now faint aural trace of this stylish ode to revolt. “Killer!”, they remark admiringly, as they often do in La Haine.


Sometimes (as the French saying goes) Kassovitz’s film fell from my eyes. There’s one rotten scene, resembling something straight out of the Aussie movie Petersen (1974), where our JD friends disrupt a chic, souless, after-midnight, art gallery opening – and what frightfully transgressive behaviour they indulge in! More generally, the dynamic, volatile style occasionally gets a bit slick, MTV-like, tricky and exhibitionistic for its own sake. That made me wonder, finally, about the social content of the piece. Sometimes there’s a touch of something a bit phony and fantasised – and I’m not just talking about the absurd subtitles obviously prepared for the American market, which deform the cultural specificity of French youth slang expressions (a common problem of translation, in its widest sense).


I wondered, at times, how well Kassovitz really knows this world that he shows. The scenes of his three heroes reflecting on politics, revolution and social change ring a little false and hollow. There’s something cautious, politically too-correct in the way that Kassovitz makes Hubert, his central black character, the most radically aware, and the least prone to aggro violence. And, amid the overwhelmingly violent, trigger-edge world of the film, I found the absence of sexual violence (in fact, anything at all related to sexuality) odd – particularly in comparison to a recent film that is, in some respects, similar to it, namely Larry Clark’s Kids  (1995).


But these are minor criticisms, finally. La Haine is among the genuine “event films” of the 1990s.

MORE Kassovitz: Gothika

© Adrian Martin March 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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