The Malaise of the Ghetto: LA HAINE (1995)

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It’s about a society on its way down. And as it falls, it keeps telling itself: “So far so good… So far so good… So far so good.” It’s not how you fall that matters. It’s how you land. – LA HAINE (1995)

In light of recent events at home and abroad it seems strangely appropriate that TCM will be airing LA HAINE (aka HATE;1995) on Sunday night. This low-budget film written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz chronicles 24 hours in the lives of three friends of different descent, an Arab (Saïd Taghmaoui), an African (Hubert Kounde) and a Jewish man (Vincent Cassel) who have befriended one another in the harsh climate of the suburban French ghettos on the outskirts of Paris. Facing discrimination, poverty and a lack of opportunity the three young men turn to drugs for escape and impulsively get caught up in the civil unrest and rioting that plagues their troubled neighborhood. While it’s easy to appreciate the film as a snapshot of the social tensions that continue to erupt in Paris today, the emotional message at the heart of LA HAINE actually speaks to a much wider demographic and the film has understandably struck a chord around the world. For better or worse, this modern day classic expressed the frustrations of a generation and many marginalized young people of all nationalities have continued to discover the film since its initial release and embrace its street-wise aesthetic.

When LA HAINE debuted at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival it received a standing ovation and almost universal praise from critics but the film was marred by controversy. As Ginette Vincendeau details in his 2005 book La Haine (French Film Guides), some wondered if the relatively unknown 28-year-old director Mathieu Kassovitz was merely exploiting the topic of youthful unrest in the Paris ghettos while questioning his right to depict characters that on the surface seemed very different from himself. After all, Kassovitz was the son of another filmmaker (Peter Kassovitz) and his family was undeniably well-off and comfortable compared to the struggling individuals who populate LA HAINE. And although Kassovitz went on to win a Best Director award at Cannes, when the filmmaker and his cast walked the red carpet it was reported that the French policemen in charge of security turned their backs on them in an act of silent protest due to the way the film approached the topic of police culpability and brutality. Afterward debate raged around LA HAINE but in this heated public climate the Prime Minister of France commissioned a special screening of the film and members of the government were required to see it. He apparently hoped that Kassovitz’s movie might help them further understand what was occurring in the low-income neighborhoods that surrounded the gleaming City of Light. This gesture suggested that the film was not only a critical success but had also become a “phénomène de société” or social phenomenon.

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After its enormous success in France, LA HAINE garnered plenty of international praise and seemed to find particularly appreciative audiences in America, Britain and Germany. Critics admired the film’s technique and among younger audiences the film was slowly developing a cult following. Nearly 20 years have passed since LA HAINE was released but its popularity has only increased thanks to home video and DVD. Currently this low-budget French film is one of the few foreign language productions that’s been able to break into the IMDB.com Top 250. Even more surprisingly, it’s also one of the few black and white films that you can find on the list that primarily reflects the cinematic tastes of young men under the age of 30. There’s no denying that young people seem to love this movie and a quick Google search will pull up hundreds of LA HAINE t-shirts being sold in online shops. At a time when superheroes and video games seem to be dominating our multiplexes as well as movie discourse, I think the enduring appeal of this black and white French movie among young audiences is well worth noting. So why do so many young people gravitate towards LA HAINE? How has it transformed over the last 20 years from a French social phenomenon to a worldwide cult phenomenon? I don’t have a singular answer but I do have some ideas.

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, LA HAINE chronicles 24 hours in the lives of three young men from different ethnic backgrounds who have befriended one another in the suburban ghettos on the outskirts of Paris. They share a common interest in American hip hop culture, Martin Scorsese movies and sports figures such as Muhammad Ali but what binds them together is their shared frustration with a world that seems to have no regard for them. Jobs are scarce if they exist at all and there’s very little motivation to get an education without parental support, especially when the schools have been turned into piles of rubble due to lack of money as well as the ongoing rioting and looting. From this vantage point the future looks incredibly grim and leads to lots of recreational drug use. Sadly, this scenario could describe many neighborhoods in America.

The film takes place after the trio survives a night of violent rioting that left one of their friends in critical condition. This event motivates Vinz (Vincent Cassel) to pocket a gun that was dropped by a police officer during the chaos and he vows to take revenge against the “pigs” that injured his pal if the young man dies in the hospital. He also thinks carrying a gun will earn him some respect in the neighborhood as a tough guy living the thug life, which he isn’t. After a brief excursion to the heart of Paris goes horribly wrong, our group of antiheroes misses the last train home to their cement suburbia and are forced to spend the night roaming the city streets while being mocked by billboards telling them that “The World is Yours.” The three friends stumble into one misadventure after another while we’re left wondering if Vinz will eventually use the gun he recklessly waves around to take revenge or express his “hate” for a society that seems determined to annihilate him and his companions.

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The film most often compared to LA HAINE is Spike Lee’s groundbreaking DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) and while they clearly share some common DNA I think they’re ultimately very different films with different influences and that may help explain while Kassovitz’ movie has managed to capture the hearts and minds of young people today. Unlike the colorful palette used by Spike Lee, the stark black and white photography in LA HAINE transforms the simmering Paris ghetto into a desolate canvas where the drama and action unfold at a tense pace. This provides the film with a documentary-like atmosphere and evokes classic French films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS (aka À BOUT DE SOUFFLE; 1960), which also featured a troubled young man (Jean-Paul Belmondo) obsessed with American gangster movies who shares much in common with Vinz. LA HAINE and BREATHLESS don’t attempt to condone or criticize the actions of their protagonists and we’re plunged into their world by similar means. Both films open with scenes of rebellion that quickly (in the case of BREATHLESS) or eventually (in the case of LA HAINE) spiral out of control.

Another film that’s reminiscent of LA HAINE is Walter Hill’s THE WARRIORS (1979), which brings different characters from various ethnic backgrounds together in common cause. In both movies a group of ostracized young men feel threatened by the police as well as their peers while making their way through a hostile city in the span of one night while attempting to reach home. The danger of gun violence erupting at any moment also plays an important role in both films and they use this mounting tension to keep the audience in a state of suspense. In a recent interview with Robert Markowitz for The Director’s Guild, Walter Hill explained why THE WARRIORS was popular with young people at the time of its release:

“. . . . (the film) took the gang situation and did not present it as a social problem. Presented them as a neutral or positive aspect of their lives. As soon as you said in the old days ‘gang movies’ it was how do we cure the pestilence and how do we fix the social waste. We want to take these kids, make sure they go to college. . . This was just a movie that conceptually was different. Accepted the idea of the gang, didn’t question it, that was their lives, they functioned within that context. And the social problem wasn’t were they going to college, but were they going to survive. It’s the great Hawksian dictum, where is the drama? Will he live or die? That’s the drama.”

Hill’s quote could easily be applied to LA HAINE, which only contains a couple of notable adults (a doting grandmother and an empathetic plainclothes cop) who attempt to offer the youths some advice. Kassovitz’s film also refuses to condemn his characters heavy drug use or fault them for their predicament. Like the young men who make up THE WARRIORS, we relate to the trio in LA HAINE simply as imperfect human beings caught up in a potentially violent situation and we wonder if they’ll be able to survive the night.

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The broad appeal of Kassovitz’s film can also be traced to another film that mesmerized young audiences in 1955, Nicholas Ray’s timeless classic REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Both films focus on a troubled threesome who form a makeshift family during the span of 24 hours. The neighborhood fighting might be on a much smaller scale and the suburban hood of 1955 Los Angeles appears much more inviting than the suburban slums of 1995 Paris, but both movies use the threat of gun violence to their credit. Neither Plato (Sal Mineo) nor Vinz (Vincent Cassel) can fully comprehend the lethal power of the  weapons they’re carrying and their shared desire for some kind of notoriety or control in the face of an indifferent world is something many young people can unfortunately sympathize with . Does LA HAINE have the staying power of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE? That remains to be seen. Ask me in 40 years and I may be able to provide the answer. In the meantime, if you want to see one of the most influential and effective French films of the 1990s, tune into TCM Imports Sunday night.

1 Response The Malaise of the Ghetto: LA HAINE (1995)
Posted By ziggy6708 : July 29, 2014 12:52 am

thanks, Kimberly. Great post for a well-made, powerful yet depressing film. Being from Chicago, is there any hopeful ‘message’ to young people?

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