Fear and Loathing in ‘La Haine’
Hate rarely hits this hard, and never has it looked this good.
La Haine, the French translation of the word, is an explosive portrait of social upheaval in modern day France and a movie that culminates with a slow but terrifying force. Much of the tension comes from the film’s amped-up visual style that doesn’t just fly – it hurtles, sticking right up against the three protagonists as they race recklessly towards moral oblivion and anarchy. It’s a style suited to the film’s message. La Haine stands beside Do the Right Thing as a powerful condemnation of anger and violence, doing for France’s suburban culture what Spike Lee did for Brooklyn in his landmark film.
The movie prefaces its dramatic narrative with a montage of archival clips that establishes the story’s social context. Rioting in the streets, mass looting, police brutality, mob violence – it’s jarring but disturbingly familiar. Though La Haine was released over a decade ago, these images could have been pulled straight from the headlines; just look at Iran, revolutionary Egypt, and the 2011 London riots. These clips don’t merely depict a particular period in French history but rather reflect a larger societal trend: the decay of civilization due to failed social infrastructures, economic inequality, and man’s penchant for violence. The film’s final voiceover monologue doesn’t address “France”; it addresses “society,” and La Haine should be watched with this in mind. It’s a film about a country, but it’s also a film for us all.
Like many social problem films, La Haine condenses its broad social commentary into an engaging, fictional storyline and zeroes in on a handful of individuals to hit its message home. They are Saïd, Hubert, and Vinz, a trio of friends swept up in the tide of rebellion that has seized the banlieue projects by storm. The movie follows the three of them over the course of one fateful day as they idle away the hours, picking fights and wandering the streets of Paris in search of something to do. Their macho posturing, ratatat gangster-speak, and arrogant naivety bring to mind the street-level thugs from Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Like in that film, La Haine intentionally compels us to feel the drift and volatility of its characters’ lifestyle which, despite its hedonistically fulfilling moments, ultimately amounts to depressing little.
The most fascinating of the trio is Vinz (a terrific and ferocious Vincent Cassel), who takes the tough guy mentality to unnerving extremes. At one point he recites the canonized “You talking to me?” from Taxi Driver (Scorsese again), and like Travis Bickle, he seems to exist in his own head, displaced from the world by his insatiable, violent aggression. It also shows Vinz trying to fill the shoes of a larger-than-life character, and in this he is not unlike Michel Poiccard from Breathless, another icon of a generation of self-indulgent, misdirected “youth” who escape into fantasies when life offers no better alternative. When we first meet Vinz, it’s literally in his dream – he’s dancing in a darkened room, and the spotlight is on him. This visual motif places Vinz at the center of his own worldview, and it recurs in a later scene when he’s showing off a gun he’d found to his friends. The environment around him may be going to hell at a velocity beyond his control, but in his mind, all power is his.
The other two friends, though ingrained with the same violent tendencies, don’t share Vinz’s stance. Hubert, a boxer who’d lost his hard-won gym to rioters, has every reason to fight but sensibly chooses to avoid confrontation because he recognizes the cyclical nature of violence. Understandably, he is vexed by Vinz’s pugnacity, and it takes Saïd’s intervention to keep the two at bay. A surrealistic scene in a public restroom visually illustrates the division between Hubert and Vinz by boxing off their reflections within the frames of the bathroom mirrors, thus giving the illusion that the two of them are spatially on two different planes, which of course is metaphorically true as well. Saïd is, appropriately, situated in between his friends’ reflections.
Such images illustrate the importance of the visual to the impact of La Haine. The movie’s editing and cinematography generate a supercharged atmosphere that evoke the characters’ psychological tensions and the overall disarray of the film’s time and place. The style feels similar to that of Guy Ritchie or Joe Carnahan, but it conveys the same level of visceral chaos with less visual chaos – it’s a creative but lucid descent into madness. Extended, static images come as stark contrasts to the many close ups of angry faces. A gliding crane shot carries “f–k the police” from booming stereo speakers out towards the banlieue rooftops. In a frenetic foot chase sequence, the shots pin to the characters as they careen down a hallway. The single blow that ensues feels like a continuation of the sequence’s visual trajectory, and as a result, there is a cathartic inertia to the violence, a product of the movie’s driving visual tempo.
And that’s what La Haine does: it gets us all worked up in the moment, then lets the consequences sink in. We feel what the characters feel, invited by the film to bask in their exhilaration, fear, boredom, and regret. It’s a feat of psychological alignment that doesn’t allow us to remain detached from a story so relevant to the passionate now. At the same time, the movie’s visual hyperbole makes us aware of the filmmaker’s devices, thus providing us with a certain degree of detachment with which we can consider the characters and their actions. When watching La Haine, we operate on two levels. On the first, we are engrossed by incendiary filmmaking. On the second, we use our engagement on the first level to objectively understand the characters’ motives and appreciate the film’s overarching vision.
There is a moment in the film where Vinz, while strolling through the neighborhood with Saïd, spots a cow standing in the middle of the road. In an ecstatic frenzy, he insists that it’s the same cow he’d seen at one of the riots. His level of irrational excitement temporarily thrusts the scene into a state of absurdist surrealism, a tone that surfaces again and even more strongly in the bathroom scene mentioned earlier. Such bizarre moments infuse La Haine with traces of a dream-like experience, fitting because the entire film functions as a stylized social nightmare whose most frightening characteristic is its likeness to reality. Director Matthieu Kassovitz refuses to patronize and ridicule at a distance. His film brings us straight to the darkest corners of an abject system by having us see, hear, and feel the cataclysmic emotions that detonate into violence. The world of La Haine is harsh and brutal – it’s our world, brought to our attention in one blistering, cinematic reverie. But all dreams end, and when this one does, it blasts like a 150 decibel wake up call.