Criterion // 1995 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // May 28th, 2012
It's not how you fall that matters. It's how you land.
Despite some gross missteps like Gothika, Mathieu Kassovitz is a director of considerable talent who can put together some pretty great work, given good material for him to show it (that is, not Gothika). La Haine was his second film and remains his best, a powerful social drama that resonates as strongly today as it did upon its 1995 release. Criterion originally brought the film to DVD for its tenth anniversary; now we have the upgrade to Blu-ray and it's totally worth it.
It's not all baguettes and Marcel Marceau when you live in the French projects, which is evident every day in the lives of three young men who were born into them. Hubert (Hubert Koundé, Cafe au lait), an African, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui, Three Kings), an Arab, and Vinz (Vincent Cassel, The Crimson Rivers), a Jew, became friends through shared rough circumstances, but their lives go crazy when a friend is beaten into a coma by police. During the ensuing riots, Vinz finds a pistol a police officer lost, pockets it and he vows that, if his friend dies, he will take revenge on the police.
When talking about recent political uprisings like the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements around the States, it's extremely easy to vilify one side and lionize the other, whether one is on the side of the protesters or the authorities cracking down on them. On a broad scale, anybody who cares about the issues does this to a certain extent, especially when discussing "The Authorities" or "The Protesters" as large, faceless groups. People start to run into trouble, though, at the point that those opinions transfer from the group to the individual within the group. That's where La Haine takes place and why the title, which translates to Hate in English, is so appropriate.
As we observe these three friends over the course of a single eventful day, it becomes easy to see how hate their hate works. It isn't that every cop is a corrupt scumbag or that every kid is a rioting punk, but with a whole class of underemployed, underserved poor and a system designed to keep people within their class can easy cause frustrations to boil over. When this happens, the police crack down and the situation escalates. A civilian gets hurt, the mob retaliates against the police, and the cycle of hate begins. La Haine continues to hit home all these years later because very little has changed and the story is always the same. The police blame the citizens and the citizens blame the police. There are good and bad individuals, but it's far too convenient to just lump everybody together and act as though they're nameless, faceless hordes.
La Haine was about as personal as a film could get for Kassovitz. The son of a Czech immigrant, still in his twenties, directing a film with friends in similar situations in a place close to their hearts, there's no way it could be anything but a personal journey. His care and love for his subject comes through every moment of the film, which is at once a slowly paced road movie about three friends and a stylized social commentary. He employs long takes with a lot of dialog to build up the characters and relationships. This mostly revolves around the three friends, but also involves their ancillary peers and a good cop who seems determined to keep these kids out of trouble. They're all very well defined and, while Kassovitz's sympathies certainly lie with the poor people over the authorities, he never blames one side entirely for the problem.
The message of La Haine is well heard, but the movie wouldn't have any of its impact without the incredible lead performances. The story is split pretty evenly among the leads, and they're all phenomenal in their roles, but by his charisma and intensity, Vincent Cassel takes center stage; Vinz is memorable for his intensity and realistically confused, frustrated youth, brimming with violent thoughts and desperately needing an outlet. Cassel's depiction of that makes Vinz a seriously unlikeable character, but one that is easy to sympathize with and understand. That's not to downplay the rest of the actors, but Cassel is simply dominant.
La Haine looks great on Criterion's Blu-ray and, though all the extras are repeated from their previous standard definition release, the technical improvements make it worth the upgrade. The 1.85:1/1080p transfer is as crisp as you could want, crisply detailed and sharp every moment. The image looked very good before; it looks fantastic now. There are one or two visible instances of nicks on the print, but it otherwise looks next to perfect. The black and white contrast is stark, with beautifully clean whites and deep, inky blacks. The DTS-HD 5.1 lossless audio is nearly as good, but it is plainly not an aurally dynamic movie. There is increased action in the surround channels, especially during the riot scenes, and the dialog is always perfectly sharp. It's not quite as big an improvement over the DVD as the video, but it's noticeably better.
If I had to complain about anything, it would be the lack of any new extra features, but I can't argue about it because of their high quality and exhaustiveness. It starts with an excellent commentary with Kassovitz. Instead of giving the usual technical details, he delivers a highly interesting discussion of the events surrounding the conception of the film, his own history, and his personal political views. He's not shy about any of it, which is refreshing, although he also isn't shy about lauding the film. He's right; it's a great movie, but he doesn't have to mention it so much.
Additionally, the movie features an feature-length documentary, Ten Years of La Haine, which provides the behind-the-scenes information lacking in the commentary. Interviews with most of those involved in the film tell an informative story, but it isn't all that interesting a film. An interview with Jodie Foster, who championed the film on its release and whose company distributed it in the US, is an optional introduction, but at over ten minutes, it serves the film better as a featurette afterward. A pair of brief featurettes, one on the setting and the other production footage, are pretty standard, while deleted scenes show the film before it was finished, rough and in color. The effect of the black and white processing becomes pretty clear, as the scenes lose a lot of their impact in color, which is pretty interesting, and each is accompanied by an afterword by the director. A photo gallery, trailers, and the customary essays in the booklet round out a great slate of extras.
Whether La Haine is a worthwhile upgrade might well depend on what one values in the film. The film is stylish, but very tightly confined, and the high-definition treatment only enhances its rawness. Likewise, the sound is sparse and realistic, but I appreciate those aspects of the film, and both are big enough upgrades for me. If you already have Criterion's SD edition and are happy with how it looks and sounds, there are no new supplements to entice a repeat purchase.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery