There is a certain Eurocentric ideal prescribed upon the French. Whether it’s the candy colored, accordion scored wonderland of Amelie or the gold dappled, cobblestoned paradise of Before Sunset, France has always been the hotspot for romance and idealist fantasies. Another important factor: the France of our dreams is almost exclusively white and wealthy. This is why “La Haine” is so important. Like a Molotov cocktail smashing through a stained glass window, it destroys the illusion of bourgeoise French society, bringing to light the plight of impoverished minorities in a searing character study that explores bigotry, police brutality, and hate.
Hate is the important word here. “La Haine” directly translates to “Hate.” But what type of hatred is director Matthieu Kassovitz dealing with? Is it the hatred felt towards minorities by the white upper class? Or is it the hate of the downtrodden towards a corrupt system? In all honesty, it is probably both. Kassovitz’s thesis is that hate is cyclical: one feeds into each other like an ouroboros. If one were to look at the film through a Foucaultian lens, one would realize that it is a statement on systemic corruption on a societal level, rather than an economic, racial, or bigoted one. Not to say that those aspects are present, but they are a symptom rather than the cause.
“La Haine” is set during a time of civil unrest in France, a time of riots, protests, and police brutality. It follows three young men living in the projects: a Jew, an Arab, and an African American, and how the bourgeoise system exploits them in different ways. At the beginning of the film, a major voice in the French protests is put into a hospital in critical condition. Vinz, the Jewish man, states outright that if the man dies, he will kill a cop. However, what follows is not a series of dramatic situations, but rather a day and night in the life of these three men. It’s a surprisingly funny and loose film for all of the heavy subject matter it deals with.
On a visual level, “La Haine” is in a class of its own. Shot with crisp black and white photography, Kassovitz captures the projects in a series of beautifully orchestrated wide shots, always reminding us of the juxtaposition between character and location. It feels both formalistic and fresh, combining the classical blocking of Steven Spielberg with the freewheeling style of Spike Lee. Kassovitz has stated that his influences have always come from American directors like these, as opposed to the European masters like Tarkovsky and Bresson. Because Kassovitz is able to borrow the immediacy of American cinema, he is able to create a film that feels much more urgent than the comparatively thoughtful, reflective style that European cinema often finds itself in.
“So far so good. So far so good. So far so good”- – these are the words of a man who had jumped off the top of a skyscraper. Similarly, French society seems to be acting in self-destruction, yet in constant denial. The bourgeoise society are standing in a collapsing society, yet busy themselves with cocktail parties and modern art museums. The world they live in is an idealist one, one that is created by the media as a way of selling tourists the country. They are not representative of the true France, one that is multicultural and oppressed. Kassovitz’s film is a bruising experience, but also a surprisingly contemplative one. Not only does it seek to give a voice to the voiceless, it attempts to show these voices in conversation. “La Haine” is an angry movie, but it is anything but hateful.