Image Credit: Canal+
The 80s and 90s were a turbulent time for France. Bombings, shootings and riots took place across the country, as tensions between police and immigrants reached boiling point. In 1986, Malik Oussekine was beaten to death in police custody after participating in a student protest. 1993, 17-year-old Makome M’Bowole was shot dead by police during an interrogation. A bombing at the Saint-Michel metro station in 1995 left 8 dead and 80 injured. Three weeks later a bomb at the Arc De Triomphe injured a further 17. National Front fascists took to the streets. The rising numbers of deaths or serious injury as a result of police presence was climbing. Rioters took to the streets to protest the slowly climbing number of deaths or injuries occurring in police custody.
This side of France was to be the backdrop to Matthieu Kassovitz’s ‘95 classic La Haine. Forget the side of Paris from the cinema of days gone by. La Haine isn’t concerned with the sophistication of Parisian life, or the elegance and beauty of the city. Kassovitz’s depiction of Paris is a whole lot more bleak.
Set in the city’s run-down banlieues (suburbs, tower blocks and estates), La Haine follows the lives of three teenagers during the aftermath of a particularly violent protest. These protagonists are first or second generation immigrants, living in poverty and trying to escape the life of the suburbs. They’re brash, impulsive and opportunistic, trying to make a name for themselves on the estates. Often they are described as ‘branleurs’ - quite literally, ‘wankers’. There’s Vinz, an Eastern European of Jewish descent with a violent temperament and a reverence of gangster films. Hubert is a black North African, a level-headed yet fiercely loyal boxer who is desperate to leave the life of crime and the suburbs behind him. Then there’s Said, an Arab whose sense of humour and laissez-faire attitude put him at odds with the other two. The trio’s volatile yet strong friendship drives the film, and leads to violent encounters with fascist skinheads, racist cops and gun-toting coke addicts.
After a friend is beaten and hospitalized by police officers, the trio travel around Paris attempting to return to normality in the aftermath of the riots. This is more difficult than they first assume. A combination of ever-increasing police scrutiny, drug addiction and a stolen firearm lead to the trio running, fighting and hustling their way through the city. Taking a tone similar to Spike Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing, the film deconstructs the modern myths of ‘post-racial’ society, and looks at the ugly and often violent side to life in these poor neighbourhoods and tensions bubbling below the surface: being assaulted by police officers, ostracized by the wealthier inhabits of the city and forced to hustle to make a living.
If you couldn’t guess, this film is as cuttingly relevant now as it was when it was first released; the institutionalized racism of the police, the demonization of immigrants and minorities and the ugly narratives of disenfranchised youth in the suburbs and estates.
I remember the first time I watched La Haine in 2015, it was extremely evocative of the London riots. The injustice, the prejudice, the fury. It rings equally true watching amidst the global demonstrations and protests demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the many black Americans gunned down by police. Paris, London, Minneapolis - it doesn’t matter. La Haine captures two distinct paranoias: an alienation rooted in race and class, and a police system that serves to only perpetuate violence. The aesthetics of the entire film seem rooted in these two notions of alienation and violence, from the sprawling suburban estates that the characters inhabit to the gritty and cold monochrome the film is shot in. Kassovitz’s eerie camerawork only adds to this, with wide aerial shots that the characters end up lost in, and claustrophobic close ups that dart from face to face and capture every moment of confusion, fear and anger.
The constant ticking of a clock interrupts scenes, the time being flashed on screen bringing a terrifying sense of immediacy to the whole thing. A claustrophobic sound design of heavy footsteps, the rattle of metro carriages and the distant thudding of hip-hop only serve to add to this nerve-racking atmosphere. For a film where, for the most part, nothing really happens, it’s incredibly tense and captivating.
La Haine is not a film that leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling. It shouldn’t. Through it’s effortless deconstructions of race, class and police brutality, Kassovitz explores deep-seated and ingrained issues of injustice at the heart of modern France. Don’t let the gritty stylings or French language put you off - this film is a must watch in the current climate.