Watched May 28, 2012
Jay Cheel’s review:
17 years after its release, I’m just now getting to Mathieu Kassovitz’s brilliant 1995 film La Haine. Thanks to a recent Criterion Collection blu ray release, I had the opportunity to watch it for the first time in high definition and the film (and its transfer) did not disappoint.
La Haine takes place in and around a French housing project in the aftermath of a medium scale riot. Tensions are high after the brutalization of a neighbourhood teen by overzealous cops, leaving the victim in a coma and the multi-cultural melting pot on the verge of boiling over. Three friends, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Hubert (Hubert Koundé), attempt to make sense of the violence and struggle to come to terms with their role in this crisis and how they should respond. When word spreads that one of the “pigs” dropped his gun, it’s quickly revealed that Vinz is in possession of the weapon and intends to use it to avenge his friend. Meanwhile, Hubert — a boxer — seems determined to escape the limited expectations of life in the projects, but is continually pulled back into the world of drugs and violence. The three friends go on a road trip of sorts, traveling to Paris and engaging in various situations that test both their friendships and their dedication to their individual ideals. The stand out performance of La Haine definitely goes to the young Vincent Cassel, who previous to this seems to have been mostly active in television and short films. He manages a level of intimidation that’s continually undercut by his character’s own lack of self-confidence and immaturity. It’s a unique balance that successfully mixes humour and drama resulting in a performance (and a film) that’s fresh and pretty tough to define.
La Haine is definitely a product of the 90’s. It’s aesthetically grounded in the post-Tarantino wave of indie films — most notably with some of the dialogue — and Kassovitz seems to wear his influences on his sleeve. I’m immediately reminded of Trainspotting (released a year later), Goodfellas, and most obviously, Do the Right Thing. La Haine’s tonal ambiguity had me intrigued, as moments of comedy are butted up against more serious attempts at commenting on the social and political climate of France, focusing on immigration and class division. Kassovitz manages to successfully navigate this bigger ideas while still creating something that’s still entertaining and character driven. The film never feels overly preachy, which is a major plus. The direction is mostly natural with occasional stylistic flourishes. In one sequence, a resident of the projects sets up some speakers and a turntable and performs out of his building’s window. The camera floats through the air in one long take, giving us a bird’s eye view that seems to track along with the music’s sound wave, revealing the geography of the neighbourhood. The shot reminds me of the infamous floating camera single-take in Mikhail Kalatozov’s ‘I Am Cuba’. Another stand out scene has the boys confronting a drug dealer who owes one of them money. The tone of this exchange and the way in which it plays out was very reminiscent of the ‘drug deal gone bad’ sequence in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. As the film progresses, tensions continually rise as the hatred escalates, resulting in the characters being forced to choose between giving in to their urges and continuing the cycle of violence, or avoiding the consequences of what seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.