La haine – The Hate

France, 1995

Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

With Vincent Cassel (Vinz), Saïd Taghmaoui (Saïd), Hubert Koundé (Hubert)

The way the long titles, which are projected on television footage of a riot, presents the cast indicates the narrative revolves around three different world: the community living in a huge urban project in a suburban town where much of the plot takes place, the police forces and Paris. In a context of tension, as violence flares up easily at a terrible cost, the wider society stands as deeply divided, with groups readier to clash with each other rather than to coexist quietly, let alone getting together.

The plot is centered on the actions and reactions of a trio of youngsters from the project over a day and a night. It is dramatically bookended by violence involving the police, first the riots that shockingly opens the film, a running street battle pitting the local youth and police riot that has left one teenager dead and another badly injured and did not leave the three main characters unconcerned, far from it, and later the sudden and dreadful clash between them and a trigger-happy cop.

Trapped in a dull, alienating life: from left to right, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui and Vincent Cassel

The film gives a sober but unflinching assessment of the work of the French police and the growing impossibility to sustain, even foster trust between them and the citizenry they are supposed to protect and to watch but, in the view of the suburbs’ youth and on the face of it, tend instead of harassing to curb resentment and vengeance. The increasingly strident message the carefully composed and intensely observed incidents convey tells of an unchecked and widespread disrespect and disgruntlement spiraling into a daily madness. If police bullying is graphically depicted it is only fair to notice how impulsive attacks can worsen the situation – destroying a police station, or a boxing club, cannot really help to bring to justice the cops who fired on the unlucky teenagers. The police, it should also be noted, is never painted with the same brush: as they are looking for a building, the trio gets a fairly polite answer to their questions from a policeman on the beat while a young detective makes his disgust, and his pain, clear as two elder colleagues beat up later two of the young. More broadly, the film strives to be an honest description of the people, far away from the short, simplistic clips of news programs (that the film has deftly used to start the plot but later cruelly mocks, introducing bumbling and rash journalists that our trio promptly sends running away).

But to speak of a plot can be misleading: the lead characters are often caught in the midst of a real lack of action, doing nothing – the first image of Saïd shows him standing idly in the middle of a sidewalk eyes closed while Vinz has to be woken up by Saïd before starting one of the many rants that define his persona throughout the film; and later sequences readily open on them, their sidekick Hubert and sometimes others just loitering, fooling around, expecting something. The film thus captures the boredom and the lack of activities and opportunities blighting this segment of the population – youth with no prospect of economic progress, doomed to illegal dealings to survive: despite being self-controlled and well-meaning Hubert still sells drugs while Saïd is always cutting dubious deals, chasing after the dough, which explains the day trip in the capital. But then again, the film highlights that business in the project is not only about crime and that some people living there are decent workers and some youngsters dedicated students – just like the mother and the sister of Hubert.

The plot, if there is one, deals with the various temperaments that make up the trio and the way each guy reacts to the riot. Hubert can claim to be a victim of the rioters, as the boxing club he struggled to set up with the help of the authorities has been a target of the violence – he is painfully aware of the unfairness of the system but still hopes to promote self-improvement and respect even as they look like fast-depleting commodities. Saïd talks loud and rudely but his tempers are checked by caution: his rage in the face of the crisis does not blind him into nihilistic hatred. This is not the case of Vinz, a loose cannon and shiftless lout who reckons that vengeance should rise – and is actually ready to carry it out as he happened to have found a gun a policeman had lost the night before; whether or not he would use it against a cop becomes the plot’s suspense and a bone of contention with his pals. The way that story unfolds turns out to be a stunning tragedy that costs him his life and drives his most serious and peace-minded friend to do the most unthinkable and the irreparable act. With this development the film rejects any happy ending, casting away any hope or just reasonable behavior and attitude; it does suggest that at one point nothing could repair and redeem past wrongdoings (this is the sense of the story Hubert tells at the beginning and repeats later twice: a guy falls off the roof of a skyscraper but as he looks at every story he keeps telling himself that up to now everything is right, ironically missing the point: what matters is not how you fall but how you can land on the ground; and in the film, the landing is rough and lethal).

Each member of the trio happens to embody a particular aspect of the French population: Vinz is Jew, Saïd comes from the North African migration and Hubert is a Black. This suburb, like others, is no racial monolith but stands as a vibrant multicultural mix; the problems cannot easily be put down to derogatory clichés on race but are clearly linked to economic geography and social hierarchies; the film fully illustrates that basic teaching of sociology, blatantly ignoring prejudices the wider population can have on those suburbs. As the camera roves around the project, it takes its time to watch and hear the cultural expressions this alienated youth has built: graffiti are a visually arresting background while rap is blasting from the windows; at one point the camera shoots intently and intensely a break dance competition; the contrast could not be starker with what passes as modern art in Paris.

Not unlike “Do The Right Thing” (1989), “La haine” is a celebration on the big screen and for the public of a fringe street culture that actually defines a neglected and poor section of the modern cities; the film does a lot to impose on the national conversation and cinema the art and style of a grossly under-represented youth yearning for respect and proud of the culture they have created. This is not as if the French cinema has always been inexpert at showing and examining the poor and the lives and ideas set outside the mainstream: but it is a rare case where the embrace is strong, the approach brutal and, more importantly, the effort rings true – words, images, acts feel genuine and not just borrowed and rewritten (thank God, this is not the kind of dialogues and languages that screenwriters like Jacques Prévert or Michel Audiard contrived to let working class folks or thugs express themselves).

This is also a stylish film. The gorgeous black and white cinematography nicely underlines the tension and the drama running in the lives of the trio and gives to their adventures a gritty and at the same time smart edge; it can bring to mind the visual style used by Martin Scorsese in “Raging Bull” (1980) – actually, the American director is clearly quoted with a monologue Vinz tells in front of a mirror that is inspired by “Taxi Driver” (1976). In the final sequence, that cinematography powerfully captures how violence can unravel a whole world and how black and white stand as the signs of a situation that awfully moved from a complex picture in the grays into a depressingly Machiavellian clash leaving no hope. That tragic vision is haunting, if only because it is underpinned by a willingness to observe that is genuinely compassionate and strives to be as honest as possible, looking straight at the human persons and eschewing political or moralistic opinions. The audience is left grappling with a world they barely know and with disasters that do not call for quick judgments and easy options; they must find themselves how to land on the ground after just a fall from their comfort zone.

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