La Haine

dir. Mattieu Kassovitz, 1995

From left to right: Vinz, Saïd and Hubert (Cassel, Taghmaoui and Koundé) are in a public bathroom in Paris. Vinz and Hubert are facing away from the camera and Saïd is using a telephone.
Image credit: Canal+

Occasionally a film viewing is postponed until the right mood presents itself. This feature has been in the back of my mind for a while. La Haine — ‘Hatred’ — is Mathieu Kassovitz’s directorial gem. It follows a day in the life of three young men, of diverse cultural backgrounds, in the Parisian public housing projects.

The estate is home to families, graffiti and loud music (the soundtrack was taken care of by French hardcore rap group Assassin). In a cameo, DJ Cut Killer splices together ‘Sound of da Police’ by KRS-One and Édith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. It echoes from his apartment into the courtyard — this is gritty 90s Paris. The camera floats from speakers towards the sky like unruly sound waves.

Against this scenery, Vinz, Hubert and Saïd (Cassel, Koundé and Taghmaoui respectively) navigate the aftermath of riots that occurred the previous night. These outcries are a reaction to police brutality; the film carries a justifiably ‘nique la police’ overtone. This anti-cop sentiment is in part drawn from personal outrage. A friend of the guys, Abdel, was severely injured in the riots and is being held in police custody. Trigger-happy Vinz seeks revenge. It is revealed that he found a missing police gun amidst the chaos of the protests. He tucks it into his jeans in an audacious, tough-guy move.

Vinz fights with Hubert — of Afro-French identity — about his more careful attitude to cops. Saïd plays arbitrator between their conflicting temperaments. A stinging reference to the Rodney King tragedy is thrown into the ring. La Haine is not shy about demonstrating the tense relationship between police and public. Indeed, there is an awareness of the privileges held by some over others, with respect to the consequences of hitting back against the law.

Oppressive measures also come in subtler forms. The three guys hang out on the rooftops with friends. Cops arrive to break up the harmless gathering; one of them has ‘NOTRE DAME’ emblazoned on his jacket. Aesthetic details are made to stand out by the choice to film in black and white. The harsh visual contrast highlights the presentation of a performative type of masculinity.

After thinking about The Talented Mr. Ripley, I notice reflections here, too. Characters have intense discussions in public toilets and psych themselves up by talking into mirrors. Over the bathroom sink, Vinz points finger guns at his image in a gesture of machismo borrowed from Taxi Driver: ‘You talkin’ to me, mothafucka!’ In defying authority there is a great deal of masculine pride at stake.

Hubert, Vinz and Saïd take the train into central Paris. They rest on a balcony and the camera swerves into a dolly zoom against a backdrop of traffic and lights. It refocuses on the men and the city blurs behind them. The film speaks of a wider geographical and political context told through a narrower field of view — the cultural specificities and personal struggles of its three protagonists.

There is comedy in small doses; a gentle compromise between sobering moments and more humorous ones. Even so, at the heart of La Haine are grave concerns about systemic acts of prejudice and violence. The sociopolitical undertone is ever-present; a darkness that is foregrounded as events play on. The story is, after all, about three guys loafing around Paris with a stolen Chekhov’s gun. It’s a matter of if — or when — it will go off.