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  • Ravi Swami

"La Haine", Dir: Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

"La Haine" came up as highly recommended on Apple+ as a breakthrough film both for its' director, Mathieu Kassovitz, and for the subject matter, which is similarly reflected in some other films of the period, most notably Danny Boyle's "Transpotting", released the following year, and I danced around the idea of watching it for some time before deciding to - it's definitely a film that should be approached with the right mood - for a start, the poster, in black and white like the film (shot originally in colour), and featuring the three lead actors, Vincent Cassel, playing a Jewish skinhead "Vinz", Hubert Koundé as "Hubert", a West African would-be boxer, and Saïd Taghmaoui as "Saïd", a Muslim, suggests a gritty, violent, and uncompromising urban drama, and that is exactly what it is.

Inspired by Kassovitz' outrage following the "accidental" shooting by the police of a young Zairian, Makomé M'Bowolé, a resident of one of Paris' "Banlieue", or outer suburbs, during a riot in protest at continued police harassment and racism, the film is structurally a patchwork of anecdotal sequences rather than a reconstruction of the actual incident itself.

The Banlieue's are characterized by a very multi-ethnic population at the lower end of the economic scale and are consequently something of an embarrassment to many Parisians, and despite attempts at cosmetic improvements such as modern apartment blocks in bright colours reminiscent of the architectural idealism of Newcastle's Byker Estate (designed to house similarly low-income inhabitants), many of these suburban estates fell prey to neglect and the consequent criminality and routine police harassment of the inhabitants, effectively turning them into no-go areas for outsiders and fostering an atmosphere of fear and hostility on both sides.

The plot revolves around a similar incident to the death of Makomé M'Bowolé where "Abdel Ichaha", a much-loved member of the community, is almost killed whilst in police custody following a riot, in addition to which, Cassel's "Vinz" acquires a revolver belonging to a policeman which he intends to use to avenge Abdel - who is in hospital in a critical condition - having been driven to this extreme by a bitter hatred of the police, hence the title of the film "La Haine" (Eng" translated as "Hate").

The parallels to the immigrant Jewish ghettos of pre-WWII Europe following the rise of Fascism are inescapable, which may explain why Kassovitz chooses the place "Vinz", a Jew, centre-stage, though Koundé's "Hubert", stoical after his boxing gymnasium is vandalized and destroyed during the riot, thus dashing his ambitions and a possible escape route from the wretchedness of the "banlieue", and Taghmaoui's "Saïd" as a young Muslim facing daily police harassment and brutality, are hardly sidelined.

With his boxing ambitions upturned, Hubert falls back on drug dealing and following a violent confrontation between Abdel's brother and the police where Vinz tries to shoot a police officer with the stolen gun, the three go on the run to Paris, where Saïd has arranged to meet "Asterix", a drug dealer who owes him money. In Paris things begin to unravel and both Saïd and Hubert have a run-in with some sadistic plain-clothes policemen who detain them and subject them both to torture and abuse whilst Vinz flees, still determined to carry out his threat.

After Hubert and Saïd are released following a night in a cell they rejoin with Vinz, who they continue to dissuade from carrying out his mission. They decide to return to the suburbs but are then accosted by a group of Neo-Nazi skinheads who Saïd had previously taunted from the safe vantage point of a rooftop and they narrowly avoid a beating before one of the skinheads is separated from the group and chased through an alley before Vinz points the gun at his head and threatens to kill him.

Vinz' realises that he doesn't have the nerve to follow through with the threat and feeling defeated, the three return to the Banlieue, but not before seeing a news broadcast announcing the death of Abdel in hospital which drives Vinz into a rage and he is more determined than ever to carry out his threat.

To reveal the films' ending would be unfair but it is clear that this is not simply a voyeuristic look at a certain strata of society from a comfortable vantage point, though the films' subsequent success both commercially and critically for a brief period resulted in a genre of banlieue-set films that capitalized on the grimier aspects of life there, such as "District 13" (2004) produced by Luc Besson, which depicted "parkour" action set against a sub-plot featuring violent drug dealers in the concrete jungle of the banlieue

"La Haine" is a raw gut-reaction to the injustices meted out on these communities by the police and wider society and Kassovitz forcibly and uncompromisingly makes his point without ever allowing the plot to slide into sensationalism, using the device of vignettes of perhaps unconnected real-life incidents to highlight the typical day to day lived experience of the three main characters.

A recurring motif, used at the very start of the film via narration by Hubert, "jusqu'ici tout va bien" ("so far so good") regarding an anecdote about someone who throws himself off a high building and says "so far so good" as he passes the floors on the way to his inevitable death, implies the sense of a society in free-fall unconcerned about the wider consequences of its' actions, and this is utilized throughout by Hubert and directed toward Vinz, who is precipitating himself towards some tragic outcome as a result of his blind hatred combined with an almost fetishistic attachment to the stolen gun.

The success of the film - winning best picture at Cannes in 1995 - catapulted Vincent Cassel into the "A" list category of actors internationally, though perhaps tellingly, his co-stars, whilst enjoying reasonably successful careers in film and theatre, are less well-known. While "La Haine" was a critical success in France and worldwide, much to Kassovitz' disgust it is still viewed in some quarters as a "genre" film that capitalises on violence for entertainment rather than being the political statement he intended it to be and he subsequently left France to make films in America, a quite ironic turn of events in the context of Julius / Jules Dassins' ("The Naked City") escape to France from America following the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts and the laying of the seeds of the French New Wave movement in cinema.

"La Haine:, Dir Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995

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