Judge Adam Arseneau is scared of Batman and nuns equally.
Our review of La Haine (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published May 28th, 2012, is also available.
"It's not how you fall that matters. It's how you land."
France's answer to gritty American-style socially relevant filmmaking, La Haine (literally translated into English as "hate") is a tour-de-force of both style and substance with a premise that starts off like a bad joke ("an Arab, an African, and a Jew walk into Paris…"). Some films evoke emotion and some garner your sympathies, while others crack your stupid skull open and steal your wallet. With a name like "hate," take a guess what kind of film La Haine is.
Criterion delivers yet again on a definitive edition of a movie that's been embarrassingly in and out of print in North America over the last decade.
Facts of the Case
Life in the banlieue (low-income housing projects) of Paris is often a violent affair. Another riot broke out between police and the mostly immigrant population, this time resulting in the near-death beating of a young Arab. The denizens wake up the next day to find most of the project smashed and burned, with a very anxious police presence watching their every move.
Aimlessly wandering away time are three friends, different in descent but united in apathy and cultural insignificance. They are young, angry, and indifferent towards authority, trapped within their concrete jungle. Vinz (Vincent Cassel, Sheitan, Ocean's Twelve, The Crimson Rivers) is bug-eyed and angry, a bubbling cauldron of testosterone and desire to prove himself in the eyes of his peers. Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui, The Good Thief, Spartan) is the comedian of the bunch, younger brother to a more influential and respected member of the projects, and as eager to prove himself as Vinz, if not as brave. Hubert (Hubert Koundé, The Constant Gardener, My Father and I) spends his days boxing in the local gym (now burned down) and dealing drugs, painfully aware that his life is going down the same path as his brother—toward prison.
Angry and filled with malice towards the police, the three examine their surroundings the next morning. Their friend lies in critical condition in a hospital bed, but every time they try to visit him, the police turn then away, fearful of their hooligan appearance.
There is a rumor going around the projects that during the riots yesterday, a policeman lost his gun. Gleeful at the prospect of bad fortune for the police, the tale spreads like wildfire. Unfortunately, the gun has made its way into the possession of Vinz, the last person on the planet the police (or his friends) would want to have such an item. Incensed at the beating and hospitalization of his peer, Vinz swears that if his friend dies as a result of his beating, he will be "evening the score" with the police…
As a young French actor/director, Mathieu Kassovitz (Métisse, The Crimson Rivers, Gothkia) had impressed many with Métisse, but done little to prepare the world for the raw emotional intensity and social resonance of La Haine. Blending sobering social realism with a Scorsese-Mean Streets style, he covers the entire gamut of emotions in this 90-minute film; everything from anger, hatred, comedy, friendship, and loyalty, to shades in between. As lighthearted and absurd as it is crushingly brutal, La Haine transplants a juvenile buddy comedy about maturity and friendship smack dab into the middle of a race riot, then sits back and watches the fireworks explode.
Over the last generation or two, France has been struggling with its identity somewhat, as decades of post-World War II open immigration policies began to change the face of its citizens. A country that prided itself on global progressiveness suddenly realized that inherent pride and long-held beliefs of French nationalism had begun to rear its ugly head. This rapid influx of immigrants from all corners of the earth—particularly from Africa and the Middle East—meant a large portion of its citizens were now visibly members of minority groups for the first time in French history. The country was progressing, like all modern countries, into a multi-cultural society, a country no longer solely identified by its racial makeup.
For the French, suddenly being "French" no longer meant being solely of French descent. While many countries slid easily into this diverse globalization, France has struggled to come to terms with its shifting identity. A growing social unease and tension led to all manner of conflict, including a rise in right-wing nationalism, increasing low-level xenophobia towards those of non-French descent, increased hostility and racism from French authorities, and urban deprivation that forced immigrants into banlieues.
Literally translated as "outskirts," banlieue is an expression that does not translate perfectly into English. In North America, the moniker "inner city" often bears connotations of low-income, troubled neighborhoods with high racial diversity and crime. In France, the geographic opposite holds true. The "outskirts," or suburbs, are considered undesirable locations solely occupied by foreign immigrants, full of crime, unemployment, and low-rent housing developments. For reasons only known to the French, this increasing social tension culminated in many placing the blame onto immigrants for all the ills of society—increasing unemployment, increasing crime, etc. The effect of this brilliant deduction shifted the nation towards a more conservative and nationalist political ideology, one that frowned upon immigration and foreigners in France. Not surprising in the least, racial tensions have increased dramatically over the years, cultivating numerous examples of civil unrest and riots, including the recent swath of violence throughout France in 2005.
Influenced by a real-life incident involving Makomé Bowole, a young man shot in the head while handcuffed to a chair in a police precinct (and the ensuing riots that followed), La Haine is a painfully relevant film, even today. Director Kassovitz calls France "a revolutionary country, and proud of it," which is an understatement. Burnings, looting, and riots have been a regular event in France for the last few decades, its citizens protesting with anger and frustration at social inequality. La Haine is a film born from this social and racial unrest, a French answer to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, if you will. Both films are similar in subject matter, social relevance, and highly skilled filmmaking. Years of racism, social inequality, low-level xenophobia, and prejudice ignited anger in the immigrant youth of France, a reaction which was akin to nitrating glycerol.
Criterion has a knack for choosing films that balance between cinematic art and social realism, and La Haine is as fine an example as any. As socially poignant as the film is, the film is also a triumphant piece of cinema, the finest film that director Kassovitz has crafted yet. Its stark and saturated black-and-white cinematography is eye-catching, and the director's flair for cinematic excess lends itself to moments of surreal stream-of-consciousness and visual allegory, tap dancing intros, and hallucinations. You could call it "stylish social realism" if it wasn't such a contradiction in terms. Even taken at face value as if all social issues were surgically removed, La Haine is wildly entertaining. The hilariously curse-ridden dialogue and banter between its three protagonists are worthy of a Kevin Smith film. The film is well-written and well-acted, with all three leads turning out spectacular performances. Vincent Cassel, only moderately known at the time, launched his career from La Haine, his ferocious performance as Vinz a spectacular mix of aggression and innocence.
But La Haine is best taken with its social backbone intact. Kassovitz has crafted a poignant film that speaks loudly of the frustration of being on the outskirts of society, of growing up angry and disliked and trying to rail out frustration against a corrupt and flawed system. Forget France for a moment; this is a painfully relevant film for North Americans, too, if only to see the uncomfortable and eerie way French racial and social relations parallel those in our own neck of the woods. Think about large urban centers like New York and Los Angeles, or, specifically, the race riots of Los Angeles in the 1990s—events that bore an uncanny resemblance to those in France, almost embarrassingly so. The comparison gets even more surreal when realizing that the French banlieue subculture enjoys the same musical taste, social attitudes, and anti-establishment tendencies as their North American cousins in low-income black America—indeed, they take pride in it. Seeing an identical phenomenon spring up halfway around the world, given birth from almost exactly the same climate of racism, apathy, and social inequality is heartbreaking; doubly so when seeing it for a second time as outside observers. Plus, the glorification and glamorization of bad American culture upon the world is, well, kind of scary.
Discussing the technical merits of a Criterion DVD is one of the silliest parts of my job. Truly, it would be far simpler to discuss the things the DVD does wrong than spend endless paragraphs raving about the quality and proficiency of these DVDs. Suffice it to say, La Haine: Criterion Collection is a stunner. Director Mathieu Kassovitz was heavily involved in this release, supervising a restored high-definition digital transfer and providing interview footage and a director's commentary track.
Shot on color stock and printed in black-and-white, La Haine: Criterion Collection has a near-flawless transfer. Director involvement in the restoration has paid off here; the cinematography comes through sumptuous and rich, with deep detailed black levels, saturated whites, and articulate detail. Contrast is high with no noticeable print damage, digital artifacts, or other issues detected, save for a very slight (but unavoidable) flickering and graininess. Some sequences look less pronounced than others (the aerial crane shot in particular) but, overall, this is another high-quality Criterion job.
The film is presented in its original French stereo, a solid and clear track with moderate bass and detailed dialogue. Even better, a fantastic, ambient and detailed 5.1 surround track has been created for this DVD, which makes the stereo presentation sound weak and ineffectual in comparison. The film has been re-translated and subtitled, tightening up some of the slang translation and making the dialogue more authentic and humorous.
The film is preceded by an optional 15-minute video introduction by (of all people) Jodie Foster, who championed Kassovitz as a director of note in America through her distribution company and distributed La Haine back in the 1990s. The full-length commentary track by Kassovitz is relaxed and informative, a very excellent listen. I love how Kassovitz talks about collecting Criterion laserdiscs as a hardcore fan for years; he's pleased as punch to finally be getting his own disc. Must be nice!
The second DVD includes the main serving of supplementary features, primarily composed of a hearty 90-minute reunion documentary entitled "Ten Years of La Haine." Created by CanalPlus, it reunites the cast and crew in a series of interviews discussing the film's conception, creation, and reception by France and the world. As with all docs included on Criterion discs, this one is top-notch and is highly recommended. A 35-minute Criterion documentary brings together three sociologists—Sophie Body-Gendrot, Jeffrey Fagan, and William Kornblum—for a feature called "Social Dynamite" discussing the banlieue culture, giving audiences some history and analysis of the hatred simmering within minority communities in France and North America. It is a fascinating and deep documentary full of advanced social theory and lots of big, big words, excellent for those looking to approach the film from an academic standpoint.
A five-minute "behind-the-scenes" video jumble assembles some collected footage from the making of La Haine, and a six-minute sequence highlights the filming of a particularly challenging sequence in which Vinz fantasizes about shooting a cop. Four deleted or extended sequences are also included, with video afterwords by director Kassovitz, still in their original format of color time-coded rough cuts. Toss in a stills gallery and an essay and appreciation by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau and filmmaker Costa-Gavras and, once again, Criterion has beaten the pants off all others in the supplementary material department. Top scores here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Stylized without being exploitative, La Haine can be a frustrating film, not in presentation but in subject matter. The three boys personify the frustrations of an entire generation of immigrants trying to make the best of their lives, rendered second-class citizens by social marginalization. La Haine is prophetic in its warnings, shining a spotlight onto the danger of allowing frustration and futility to ferment and go unabated, ultimately bubbling over into violence.
Here's the frustrating part. The film is happy to point out the social and racial problems in society—one can draw parallels here into all corners of the globe, from North America to Iraq, China to Africa—but offers little by way of solution to the epidemic of human prejudice.
Perhaps Gothika was Kassovitz's solution. It certainly gives everyone in the world something to hate instead of hating each other.
I really admire La Haine, because it hits its mark on so many levels. Taken at face value, it is a hooligan film full of wit, humor, tragedy, and intensity. As social realism, it is gritty, forceful, and culturally relevant, a testament to the tidal wave of American culture systematically reconstructing European culture and the frustration and futility of raging against the system. The acting is amazing and the direction is top-notch, full of artistic expression, gorgeous cinematography, and powerful emotion. Truly, the only negative aspect to this film may be its relative obscurity. For a film as highly regarded and critically appreciated, painfully few in North America know the experience of it.
Hopefully, this fantastic DVD will take care of that.
Do I have time for one more Gothika joke? I do? Okay, perfect.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Mathieu Kassovitz
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