Three friends from different ethnic backgrounds experience the prejudices of French society in the 24 hours after a ‘race’ riot. Vinz has found a handgun and seems crazy enough to use it. Hubert, searching for ways to create something positive from his life, is more thoughtful and seems more balanced. Said observes, watching events develop around him and treading the difficult middle ground between his two friends. They journey into the centre of Paris and then back out to the working-class satellite town where they live, and as they do so they are confronted firstly by the well-to-do middle class, then by racist elements in the police force, and finally by right-wing skinheads. Back on their home turf, Vinz is accidentally killed by plain-clothes police and Hubert points a gun at the officer responsible for the death. We hear a shot but are left uncertain who may now have been killed.
As he set out to make this film, Mathieu Kassovitz’s spiritual mentor could well have been Roland Barthes. Kassovitz’s intellectual starting point is the insight Barthes gives us as he famously sits down at the barber’s shop and picks up a copy of Paris Match with an image on the front cover of a young black boy in uniform, looking up and saluting the French flag. ‘I see very well what it signifies,’ says Barthes, ‘that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors’ (1972: 125–6). Kassovitz begins a metaphorical search behind that front cover, an exploration of the attitudes, values and politics of late twentieth-century multicultural French society. He is guided by an underpinning realisation of the inescapable presence of the past within the present and an awareness of any society’s inability to deal with its current manifestation of itself without both knowledge and acknowledgment of its past.
The ethnic origins of our three central characters, Said, Vinz and Hubert, are made clear from the outset: Said is Arab African–French (Beur), Vinz has a Jewish background and Hubert is black African– French. To them, drawn together by a shared youth culture, these differences seem unimportant; but at the same time each of them is very aware of the ways in which others in France might look at their ethnicity. Because he is ‘white’ it is Vinz, for example, who is given the task of attempting to gain entry to a middle-class block of flats in central Paris.1
But, of course, Kassovitz is also producing an engaging narrative that will sit comfortably and entertainingly within the sphere of popular cinema and so the characters are carefully delineated. Through a series of scenes, for example, Vinz is associated with the key prop of the handgun: the object that is dangerous in that it is likely to ‘go off’ with deadly consequences. He is linked to this object, not only physically in that he possesses it but also emotionally in that he displays himself as something of a ‘loose cannon’, someone who could explode into violence.2 Hubert is the most carefully outlined character: we see him alone in his bedroom and at home with his mother, for instance, in scenes that do not move the plot forward but which increase our understanding of his character and intensify our sense of empathy with him. (That Hubert is more politically aware is signalled, for instance, by the pictures on his bedroom wall.) Said watches events unfold, seeing the story of his two friends play itself out before his eyes with a fatal inevitability within the context of the wider social narrative. After the opening documentary footage of riots, the film begins with Said contemplating the presence of the police on the streets and we end the film in a somewhat similar manner.
The first scenes are played out to the sound of ‘Burnin’ and Lootin” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, suggesting for the audience a particular way of seeing the documentary footage and positioning the filmmakers ideologically. Marley was associated with radical black politics and a willingness to confront state authorities that are seen as repressive.
La Haine was to some extent based on an actual event: the death of an 18-year-old black youth shot dead during interrogation by police in 1992. But the riots and the violent confrontation between the police and young people is placed within a much longer socio-historical context. The posters on the wall in Hubert’s bedroom, for example, show, first, Muhammad Ali, a black boxer who famously refused to fight in Vietnam, and, second, the ‘black power’ salute given by African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Within contemporary French society we are taken into a youth culture of music, dance and language (‘verlan’, street talk) that is seen to exist as a vibrant hybrid cultural fusion.3
And, alongside the politics of race, Kassovitz presents us with the politics of class. A strong sense of the nature of the working-class experience is given through location shooting amongst the bleak, stark walls and tower blocks of the estate where the central characters live and this is reinforced by the deliberate choice of black and white film stock. Later, by transporting the friends into central Paris the contrast between their experience of life and the middle-class experience is made clear. (This also, incidentally, places the problem firmly within the heart of French society rather than leaving it as a peripheral issue out in the satellite towns, or ‘projects’, of Paris.)
The ‘projects’, or les banlieues, where the central characters live are satellite ‘new towns’ up to 20 miles out of Paris that almost seem designed to keep the poor out of the middle-class centre of the city. These areas are stereotyped in the media as places of urban deprivation, crime and drug use. In the film, we see a TV crew staying within the ‘safety’ of their car while attempting to interview Said, Vinz and Hubert about the previous night’s riot. They are positioned in such a way as to literally ‘look down on’ the three friends in a space that resembles a bear pit or zoo enclosure.
Youth unemployment is a constant feature of the social ‘backdrop’: neither Said, nor Vinz, nor Hubert has a job. Police brutality is clearly an issue, though the role of Samir and the presence of black police officers within the mise en scène of several scenes, suggests this is not a simple and clear-cut matter. Racism is displayed, most obviously in the scene with the skinhead gang. The social exclusion experienced by some young people, as shown for example by the scenes on a tower block rooftop, in an art gallery and in an empty high-tech shopping mall, is seen to have created an ‘underclass’. And, an inevitable product of this would seem to be rebellion and social conflict.
In another scene the three main characters are placed in a children’s play area in such a way as to convey the sense of utter boredom being experienced. A single static shot of them sitting equidistant from each other in a bleak, empty space is held for some time and then an edit ‘jumps’ us forward to a shot of the same three characters in the same space but occupying slightly different positions within the frame. Because they have moved marginally we experience the cut as a jolt. The combination of holding the initial shot for longer than we might normally expect and then using a distinctive edit ensures the tedium of their lives is conveyed clearly but succinctly to the viewer. As a purposeful contrast to this, a scene of a DJ using his decks to blast out an anti-police message from his flat above the street is filmed and edited to convey an experience of momentary freedom, escape and release for the young people of the community, with the camera eventually moving out across the rooftops.
Techniques such as these are employed to give a rounded picture of the life of marginalised young people in Paris, and yet at the same time to create a film that sits relatively comfortably within the context of popular cinema. In a scene in which two experienced plain clothes policemen ‘question’ Said and Hubert in an interrogation cell while a younger trainee officer looks on, a static camera is used, refusing us any respite from viewing the racial abuse and beating that is taking place. We are denied the potential relief of looking away and yet by refusing this possibility the filmmakers in fact only highlight for us just how much we would like to turn our heads. Intercut shots of the trainee watching the performance display his distaste for what is happening and demonstrate how careful Kassovitz is to avoid being seen as simply adopting an anti-police stance. The rookie officer’s silence, his inability to speak out, is given a particular eloquence through the editing.4
At the end of La Haine we are given the basic outcome of the day’s events for our three central characters, but the wider issues raised by the film are clearly unresolved. We have been presented with a whole set of possible reasons for the state of society and a further set of potential outcomes that might result from this, but nothing within this wider social context has been resolved; what might happen here is left open although the spectre of fascism has been raised by the confrontation of the three friends with a skinhead gang.5
1. As a major colonial power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, France had colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and South-East Asia. In some of these places, such as Algeria (which gained independence in 1962) and Vietnam (where the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954), the struggle for independence was particularly bitter. Some colonies, like Martinique, remain and are able to send representatives to the French Assembly. Other former colonies, like Senegal, remain closely linked to France and French culture. French policy towards non-white ethnic groups has always been one of ‘assimilation’ with people being expected to take on French cultural norms and values. North Africans (Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians), who began to come to France for work during the 1960s, have to some extent resisted this policy.
2. The gun is symbolically handed over to Hubert by Vinz towards the end of the film in acknowledgment of the fact that he has learnt something both about himself and about the reality of gunplay, thereby making the final scene all the more poignant. The prop takes on a role and significance within the film over and above its mere presence as a material object.
3. Verlan, or ‘backslang’, began around Paris in the 1980s amongst second-generation ethnic minority young people who saw themselves as positioned somewhere between their parents’ culture and French culture.
4. The film has been attacked as having an antipolice ‘message’: whether this is true or not would depend on how we interpreted scenes such as this within the film and how we understood the filmmakers to be using film construction techniques to emphasise and elevate certain perspectives above others. It might also, of course, depend on our own personal views on ‘the police’ and our background within any particular community, culture, or subculture.
5. Right-wing politicians in France (as in other European countries) have since at least the 1980s consistently raised immigration as a key issue. In 2012, Marine Le Pen, the National Front presidential candidate, received 18 per cent of the first round votes.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Canal+, Cofinergie 6, and Egg Pictures. Director and Screenwriter: Mathieu Kassovitz. Cinematographer: Pierre Aim. Music: Assassin. Cast: Vincent Cassel (Vinz), Hubert Kounde (Hubert), Said Taghmaoui (Said).]
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, London, Cape, 1972.
Alain Gabon, ‘The Transformation of French Identity in Mathieu Kassovitz’s Films Metisse (1993) and La Haine (1995)’ in Hafid Gafaiti, Patricia M. E. Lorcin and David G. Troyansky (eds), Transnational Spaces and Identities in the Francophone World, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska, 2009, pp. 115–48.
Yosefa Loshitzky, Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2010.
Ginette Vincendeau, La Haine, London, I.B.Tauris, 2005.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.