The Parisian banlieues have long been a hot issue in French politics. While directly meaning suburbs, a banlieue carries the connotation closer to that of the projects or a council estate. Many of the poorer areas have suffered from crime and unrest since the 1980s and have been the centre of a number of political campaigns (e.g. The Front National in the early 90s; the 2005 suburban riots where Sarkozy called the participants “scum”, etc.). Police brutality towards youths in these areas – particularly immigrants – has also sparked controversy. In 1993, a young Zairian, Makome M’Bowole, was shot at point blank range while handcuffed in police custody – the officer had been threatening M’Bowole when the gun accidently went off. While it went generally unnoticed in the public domain, it inspired Mathieu Kassovitz to write and direct a film about the banlieues of Paris: La Haine.
The film follows three young men living in the Bluebell housing projects in the outskirts of Paris. They are Vinz (Vincent Cassel), a working class Jew filled with rage; Hubert (Hubert Kounde), an African boxer who wants to leave the world of the projects behind him but does not have the means to do so; and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), an Arab who is the youngest of the trio but just as embittered. During a riot the night before, a police officer misplaces his handgun, only for Vinz to find it. Looking to gain respect in the projects, Vinz vows to kill a cop if his friend Abdel dies in the hospital, due to the beating he received while in police custody.
La Haine launches us into an area where its residents feel alienated from the rest of the world. The characters are marginalised economically and politically, and constantly face severe punishment from the police. The film depicts their rage against the police and government – who they see as oppressors – and their lack of hope for the future. Yet the isolation also brings creativity as we see men performing art to pass time. Without jobs or hope, characters turn to music and dancing to escape their lives, even for a brief amount of time.
French cinema in the 1980s and 1990s was preoccupied with le cinema du patrimoine and le cinema du look. Here, however, Kassovitz decides not to sentimentalise France – or les petits gens – and instead depicts the grim nature of the blue-collared areas of Paris. The strength of the film is that it doesn’t glorify its characters. Vinz, Hubert and Saïd hate their lives and despise the society that put them there. They loathe the police and are alienated from the wealthy. We sympathise with their situation, yet cannot condone their actions. This can also be said about the police, who must control this volatile area but do so through brutal means.
La Haine does not attempt to offer any solutions; the film forcibly highlights the distrust and anger from both sides has become cyclical. As one character suggests, hate breeds more hate, and constant violence exacerbates the problem. The most powerful moments come in the latter half of the film, where characters choose whether they abuse their power or act responsibly.
Mathieu Kassovitz employs black and white cinematography in a smooth and creative manner. Much like Man Bites Dog, the lack of colour makes details more intense and shots more impacting. Cassel, Kounde and Taghmaoui act with conviction and the interaction between the three is very realistic. American references flow into the characteristically Parisian dialogue as Kassovitz emphasises cultural authenticity; Vinz reciting the famous scene in Taxi Driver is an entirely believable moment – for him, rebelling seems like the only option.
An unforgettable film due to its grim depiction of the banlieues, the final scene is sudden and shocking, with Vinz relinquishing the power of the policeman’s gun to Hubert: a moment of personal growth. But the remaining action is a reminder that in a world as violent as this, the next conflict is only a matter of time. The final moments are underlined by Hubert’s voiceover: “It’s about a society falling…on the way down it keeps telling itself: “So far so good”…how you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.” Hubert is directly addressing his world, yet it’s also an allegory of French society’s descent into pointless violence. La Haine’s final impact stems from the fact that more than a decade and a half later, these problems still exist.