Banlieue Cinema: La Haine (1995)

Michael Gott

University of Cincinnati

 

Mathieu Kossovitz’s La Haine made an immediate mark when released in 1995. The impact was both social and cinematic and the film continues to exert influence on both fronts. This was demonstrated by the spate of articles marking its 20th anniversary in publications as diverse as Indiewire and French dailies. Kassovitz was just 28 when his second feature took French cinema by storm. The film is a key early example of a category of filmmaking labelled by critics as “banlieue” cinema. Former French President Jacques Chirac and his cabinet famously watched La Haine in an attempt to understand the situation in the suburban estates that surround Paris and other major cities. Nonetheless as many commentators and scholars have argued, the film offers at best an imperfect vantage point on the complex issues facing the banlieues. While La Haine is in many ways a compelling and innovative film, it is also a problematic as a paradigm for a group of geographically related films. Banlieue cinema is confined, by definition, to a particular location already associated with the clichés that predominate in media, political and social discourses. Film scholar Will Higbee contends that banlieue cinema is the first category of film since the Western to be primarily defined by its geographical location.[1] The banlieue label crystalized in 1995 after critic Thierry Jousse applied the term to a group of films that included La Haine, Malik Chibane’s Hexagone (1994), and État des lieux (Jean-François Richet, 1995). Beyond geographic coincidence, these films shared similar approaches to the representation of suburban space and its inhabitants, or rather of a pre-selected group among them. The above three films focus on “the life of marginalized suburban (mostly) male youth in French housing estates.”[2] Since the mid-1990s this approach has dominated cinematic representations of the suburbs. Until recently, this cinema has often seemed as creatively and thematically limited as it was geographically contained. The films focused primarily on male characters and tended to foreground violence and crime.[3]

Shot in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, a community 40 kilometers northwest of Paris, La Haine portrays the division of space along the lines of la fracture sociale (social divide): the banlieue is isolated from Paris, as if it existed in a vacuum. La Haine arguably both shone a fresh light on the center/periphery divide and exacerbated that binary in public consciousness. Through its representation of suburban violence and the visceral fury that shadows the protagonists in their foray into the capital, La Haine suggests that the banlieue and its inhabitants cannot escape from the effects of the fracture sociale. Nowhere in the film is this more evident than in the scene in which a Parisian gallery owner (played by Kassovitz’s father Peter, himself a film and television director) shuts the door on the protagonists whose outburst at perceived slights reinforce the clichés about banlieue youth. With a shrug expressive of a certain fatality, the gallery patron laments “le malaise des banlieues” as the characters retreat to the street. In retrospect, this gesture stands out as a premonition of the film’s brutal and seemingly inevitable denouement.

Those protagonists comprise a highly symbolic black, blanc, beur trio. Hubert (Hubert Koundé), Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) represent three of the emblematic multiethnic identities in the Republic in the 1990s. They are not interchangeable, however. Saïd is always fretting; Hubert is more serious and doesn’t like trouble; and hot-tempered Vinz, already has a police record. They all do drugs. Their friendship and solidarity stands for a diverse France, but the narrative centers around their economic, social, and spatial segregation from mainstream society and perceived ethnic norms. The opening credits are set against archival news footage of civic unrest in the suburbs spanning a decade, and this gritty tone – due to the grainy footage –sets the stage for the fictional riot that takes place before the film begins the next morning. The plot follows the three friends over a 24-hour period. Many of Hubert, Saïd, and Vinz’s cohort participated in the previous night’s disturbance, a violent outbreak that began as a reaction to police brutality against a teenager named Abdel. This element of the plot refers to an actual event, the death of teenager Makomé M’Bowolé in a police station in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris in 1993.

This plot thread exemplifies Kassovitz’s sympathetic portrayal of suburban youth in La Haine. Since the fictional émeute takes place off-screen, we do not initially know if the trio participated in the previous night’s violence or pillaging. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the only one present was the white character, Vinz. The extent to which this runs counter to prevailing stereotypes of banlieue youth is demonstrated when an older neighbor chastises Saïd for his presumed role in the violence, which prompts the young man to retort “did you see me there?” The exposition, framed in this fashion, invites the audience to judge the characters, like the neighbor, before being fully introduced to their complexity.

The dynamic Kassovitz creates revolves around the different degrees of violence inherent in the three men. In the commentary to the film for the Criterion edition, Kassovitz describes the trio as the good, the bad, and the naïve. Hubert, a boxer, tries to control his responses, while Vinz is continually on edge, choking with resentment. He has stolen a police gun that had fallen to the ground and we fear that he will use it. When they seek to visit Abdel lying in a coma in hospital, it is Vinz who starts a violent confrontation with the policemen who guard his room. But the police, drawing on ethnic stereotypes, presume Saïd is the leader and he is taken to the police station. Saïd, though, is the most passive member of the trio and is decidedly not in charge. He is released on the intervention of a policeman who grew up in the cité. As we watch youths break-dancing, others attack a group of policemen, including Hubert, and as more police arrive, the three buddies run off to Paris.

It is only after the death of their friend Abdel, the young man brutalized by the police, that the trio veers irrevocably and for some of them unwittingly into violence. It is fitting that the young men learn this news in Paris and not in their neighborhood, where they are generally more at ease (at least when they are not being confronted by the police). This is underscored by a stark contrast between the daytime scenes in the cité, where the trio is on home turf, and the nighttime setting in Paris, where the potential for menace and exclusion lurk around every corner. The Paris excursion relies on an awkward narrative thread – Saïd’s quest to recover a trivial sum of money from an acquaintance nicknamed Astérix and vague plans to attend a boxing match– that turns into a central plot device in Kassovitz’s attempt to map out the social and economic exclusion faced by residents of the banlieue, in particular young men of color.

Exclusion is such a recurring theme that it becomes a sort of running gag, a bitter slap to the youths each time social inclusion seems possible. They are thrown out of or denied entrance to places no fewer than five different times: a gallery, a train, an improvised rooftop rec center, a chic Paris apartment building, and a club. Two of them, Saïd and Hubert, are arrested when their presence in Astérix’s swanky Paris apartment attracts the attention of residents, who call the police. They are roughed up at the police station before being released.

The trio is separated following the arrest, and Vinz and another group of friends are denied entrance to a nightclub. Almost simultaneously Saïd and Hubert, released from a holding cell, arrive at the station just as the last train home is departing, the doors already locked. Vinz finds them there. They then wander around Paris and later are escorted out of the art gallery and denied a ride in a cab. This prompts Saïd to curse “Nique sa mère, on est enfermés dehors!” This pithily encapsulates the narrative and the characters’ frustration with their existence in French society. Frustration compounds as the episodes of exclusion mount, punctuated dramatically by a violent encounter with skinheads. The spiral of violence is pushed forward inalterably by social and institutional prejudice and the march toward a closing paroxysm signaled by the frenetic ticking of a clock that accompanies the intertitles that announce the passing of time. Unhinged by the death of Abdel, Vinz starts brashly to flaunt his gun, first randomly then at a skinhead. He cannot kill him, however, despite the taunts of Hubert, who has grown progressively sick of Vinz’s macho posturing. When they get back to their banlieue at 6 am, Vinz hands Hubert the pistol. Without apparent motive, a policeman arrests and accidentally shoots and kills Vinz. The last image we see is of the policeman and Hubert pointing guns at each other. A shot is heard. The denouement makes clear that Hubert’s catch phrase, which opens the film, has proved tragically apt: “so far so good… but what matters is not the fall but the landing.” It is clear from this ending that Kassovitz considered that the banlieue was spinning towards increased violence. For the director, that violence is inevitable. Vinz is arrested and shot after he has made what Hubert convinces him is the prudent decision to relinquish the gun. The violence is also cyclical, as symbolized by the gun that changes hands from the police, to Vinz, and ultimately to Hubert, who aims it tensely at the officer who shot his friend.

Beyond its compelling if problematically violent framing of the social divide, La Haine has made a mark with its technical prowess and represents a stylistically skillful and adventurous contribution to the contemporary French canon. The film’s freshness derives from a mixture of news footage, and a documentary-style realism that draws attention to the role of media and filmic representations of social issues, compelling black and white visuals, and overt quotations of American cinema. For example, Kassovitz pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) with an exhilarating dolly zoom that recreates the protagonists’ sense of disorientation and symbolizes their social distance from the heart of Paris. Both stylistically and thematically, La Haine remains an inevitable point of comparison for the banlieue films that followed it. La Haine is therefore a valuable and compelling teaching tool, both for its cultural significance and for addressing head-on the problems associated with the impoverished cités.

Kassovitz’s vision of the banlieue is dark but also limited. It needs to be set within the proper context. La Haine presents just one side of the reality of the suburbs.[4] Notably, women get little screen time and play no major roles in the film. This may be because women from the suburbs face far less institutional and social racism.[5] Yet by failing to grant them women a voice, Kassovitz inevitably oversimplifies the suburbs and the issues they face. An alternative vantage point would be Jeunesse dorée (Zaïda Gorab-Volta, 2001), set and filmed northwest of Paris in Colombes. This first feature film directed by a Maghrebi-French woman offers a far more nuanced response to stereotypes about the suburbs.[6] Pascaul Tessaud’s 2014 Brooklyn, set in St. Denis, is yet another option. The violent end of two of La Haine’s characters encourages simplistic readings of the banlieue. If the deeply pessimistic vision of France presented in La Haine is one sort of testimony, the other films remind us that there is reason for optimism.

Mathieu Kassovitz Director, La Haine, 1995, b/w, 98 min, France, Canal+, Cofinergie 6, Egg Pictures, et al.

NOTES

  1. Will Higbee, “Re-presenting the urban periphery: Maghrebi-French filmmaking and the banlieue film,” Cineaste 33 (2007): 38.
  2. Sylvie Durmelat and VinaySwamy, eds, Screening Integration: Recasting Maghrebi Immigration in Contemporary France (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 4.
  3. M. Gott, “‘Bouger pour voir les immeubles’ : Jeunesse dorée (2001), L’année suivante (2006) and the Creative Mobility of Women’s Banlieue Cinema,” Modern & Contemporary France 21:4 (2013), 453-472: Higbee, 38-42.
  4. Gomette Vincendeau, La haine (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 23-25.
  5. Michel Kokoreff and Didier Lapeyronnie, Refaire la cité : l’avenir des banlieues (Paris: Seuil, 2013), 33-34.
  6. See Gott 2013 for a detailed discussion of Jeunesse dorée.
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