Great Films: La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995)

Matthieu Kassovitz’s portrait of a day in the life of the residents of the Parisian banlieues still feels as fresh and relevant today as when it debuted at Cannes back in 1995. Indeed, it manages to be both of its time and timeless, in a similar way to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, one of the film’s key influences. In the earlier film, alienation and existential isolation are the key drivers towards the inevitably violent denouement, while La Haine illustrates the same inevitability arising from social, economic and racial unrest. However, while Taxi Driver has often been accused of being nihilistic, a charge which i would refute, La Haine is more of a polemic, a plea to address the inequalities and prejudices which will inevitably lead to tragedy.

This social commentary contained in La Haine has been criticized from various quarters; the police in France were naturally concerned with their portrayal as violent thugs; others questioned Kassovitz’s outsider status, claiming he was portraying a culture he neither came from nor understood. This is, however, too cynical a view of the film’s intentions. Kassovitz is no Tarantino-like dimwit throwing blood around the screen for the audience’s titilation; the consequences of violence, riots and revenge are all considered carefully, and the scenarios are carefully set up so as not to give the viewer easy answers to what are profound questions. Whilst the film’s themes are universal, the setting is unmistakeable; like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, unmistakeably tied to Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy, La Haine is convincing in its portrayal of the Parisian banlieue. In a similar way to Lee’s film, we are encouraged to appreciate the colour and vibrancy of the setting, and understand a little about why our protagonists act and react to situations like they do.

The most obvious visual aspect to the film is the black-and-white photography; this was not the original intention, as it was shot in colour and only converted to monochrome in editing. The effect is to create an unsettling feeling in the viewer, creating a similar atmosphere to Rene Belvaux’s earlier Man Bites Dog, another film concerning the glamourization of violence. This is, perhaps, also a nod to the nouvelle vague, Godard, Truffaut et al, as well as the Cinéma Vérité tradition. Kassovitz’s snappy visual style and sharp edits give the film its breathless (no pun intended) pacing, again betraying the influence of the likes of Scorsese and Spike Lee. The sound design is similarly dynamic, a chiarosuro of blasts and silence. The lead performances are all spot-on; Vincent Cassel gets just the right balance between psychopath, clown and lost child, while Hubert Koundé and co-writer Saïd Taghmaoui both create equally believable characters who we feel we know versions of in our own lives. We come to like these characters, understand where they come from and why they behave as they do, and by the end of the film wonder why they their lives have to be so inevitably doomed.

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