The increasing marginalisation of minorities by the government brought about growing political angst, riots and allegations of police brutality. It is in this political angst that we find the most important theme of Mathieu Kassovitz’s classic 1995 film, La Haine (Hatred).
In suburban Paris, you cannot help but be struck by the conglomeration of high-rise flats, usually grey, which dominate the skyline. A concrete jungle, these ZUPs (Zone d’urbanisation prioritaire), or social housing projects, have long been centres of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. They are something which, combined with the central French ethos of La République, has brought their inhabitants into consistent conflict with the police. A crude summary is simply that all French citizens, irregardless of whether they are expressive of their individual backgrounds or not, are considered just that – French, and this idea led to particular tensions in the mid-1980s and 1990s.
Rather than chart the history of racial tensions in France (something which vastly predates the riots themselves), La Haine follows three young men: Vinz, Saïd and Hubert, over 19 hours in a ZUP and within the city of Paris. Each man is of a different origin – Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is Jewish and vengeful towards the police, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is a carefree Arab Maghrebi, and Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is a West African small-time drug dealer, who we later discover has had his self-built gym burnt down in the rioting. By focusing on the inner feelings of the characters through close-camera shots and twisting monologues, Kassovitz creates a film that is equally captivating in both a wider, contextual sense and in a more intimate, personal one.
The plot develops from the point when Vinz reveals he has an officer’s pistol following a riot. Inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a film that Kassovitz pays a remarkably chilling tribute to in a mirrored scene, Vinz feels he will earn the respect of the older, more street-wise inhabitants of the ZUP if he kills a policeman. His rage is fuelled further by the revelation that Abdel, an unseen friend of all three young men has died after an incident with a police officer during the previous night’s rioting. Through his use of a sobering contextual topic, Kassovitz begins to build a picture of the complex issues facing the three protagonists, and uses their vastly different responses to echo the uncertainty of French society as a whole.
Hubert, who is more thoughtful, is portrayed quite clearly as the mature character. He is a direct contrast to Saïd, whose wandering tongue and happy-go-lucky attitude often leads him into conflict with other, minor characters, not least his brother. Hubert demonstrates his uncanny and unexpected wisdom on a number of occasions, but is powerless as both he and Saïd are attacked by a group of anti-immigrant skinheads. The incident is another example of the willingness of Kassovitz to use shock tactics to communicate the fragility of race relations in the French capital at the time.
The film weaves a story that both thrills and sobers, combining almost Dead Poet’s Society-like coming-of-age moments with actual footage of the violence in the suburbs to place young people, particularly those from difficult social backgrounds, at the centre of the film and society as a whole. Deliberately shot in black-and-white to highlight the everyday nature of the shocking violence, and set to a backdrop of reggae and early hip-hop music, the film builds to an incredibly poignant climax. Far from being a dry lesson in social history, La Haine is a landmark in French cinema, and gives us a revealing and very real look at racial tension in what most people perceived to be an enlightened, developed society.
Summing the film up is best done quoting its last line, which is said by Hubert – “C’est l’histoire d’une société qui tombe” (“It’s the story of a society in free fall”).