9. la haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)                          

There is always a danger, when a young director bursts onto the scene with a breakthrough film, of our confusing modishness or edginess with talent. Indeed Mathieu Kassovitz has not come anywhere near fulfilling the promise of his second film (after his 1993 debut, Metisse) and he appears even to be slowly edging out of film direction altogether, in favour of acting. The latter profession brings him more money, more recognition and is frankly a whole lot easier. His latest directorial effort, the Halle Berry vehicle Gothika (2003), is unlikely to answer the case against him. Ironically, Kassovitz's most celebrated acting role was later to be alongside Audrey Tautou in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain, a title that should really be released in a two-disc set with La Haine, so vastly extreme but different a picture of Parisian life they both paint. Without wishing to be too facile, this is Mean Streets to Amelie's Manhattan.

This veritable molotov cocktail of a film tore through the genteel landscape of cosy period pieces, clever-clever thrillers and subtle sub-Rohmerisms of the French film industry in 1995. But is it fair to conclude, as some did then, that this was simply a piece of shouty right-on polemic? A film which could not hide its own love affair with the edgy amorality of a Scorcese or a Tarantino, whilst purporting to condemn the influence of violent culture on Paris' ethnic communities?Well, not exactly. From the opening titles of reportage footage and early hip-hop monochrome tableaux to the tragic denoument, every scene of La Haine is a cry of anguish on behalf of the ethnic underclass, people from the part of Paris the tourist board doesn't want us to see.

The excesses of invention and energy that Kassovitz and cinematographer Pierre Aim bring to the story (the gamut of modern film-school techniques are deployed, including one of the most striking zoom-in/track-out shots seen since Jaws (1975)) underscore the twitchiness and bottled-up frustration of the main characters, at first prepared to embrace, but then desperate to escape, their pre-chosen path of violence and self-destruction. Vinz (Vincent Cassel) who is jewish, Hubert (Hubert Kounde) a Cameroonian and Said (Said Taghmaoui) an Algerian, are young men adrift in one of the poorest suburbs of Paris. They are unengaged by the frequent struggles against the police but occasionally get involved. Hubert seeks a way to improve himself by accepting his lot and obeying the law. Vinz is angry but is not sure against what. Said is immature and seeks escapism as an answer. They stumble in and out of situations, including a particularly nasty encounter with the police which provides one the film's most powerful moments.

Whilst there is a certain self-consciousness to the film's edginess and brutality, the level of intelligence, both political and cinematic, burns through the screen. The choices made are never simple, the situations never black and white, and sympathy for the characters never presupposes condoning their attitudes. Like most great tragedy, the circumstances often render the character's choices irrelevant to their ultimate fate. (Right: Said Taghmaoui (Said) and Hubert Kounde (Hubert)

French intellectuals (who rarely have time for films which prove popular in any event) loathed La Haine, calling it didactic (presumably in the bad sense) and simplistic (the slang and the language are coarse). But mostly they hated it because it shoved their superiority back down their throats. The language of the streets and the raw depiction of the most ugly aspects of humanity simply has more relevance and credibility than any high-minded theories of social engineering cooked up in a cafe in St Germain.  Unlike a film such as Trainspotting, Scorcese is referenced continually but never simply plundered. Similarly, whilst La Haine shares an enormous amount thematically with Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, the latter remains no more than a superficial influence. La Haine ploughs its own fiercely topical and partisan furrow: the attitude of the privileged classes and of the machinery of law-enforcement towards the immigrant community is breeding a spiral of violence which, unless arrested by an outbreak of tolerance, will simply escalate. The experience of watching La Haine is of an excitement at uncovering an unseen and unpalatable world and witnessing a genuine struggle for survival. This is Cinema at its most vital and honest.

Behind one backdrop (the disillusionment and despair of the "HLM" (high rises) of Les Muguets) lies another, light years beyond: the picture postcard landmarks of the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur. Whether or not its director will ever make a film worth watching again, the brilliance of La Haine will never go away.

La Haine 97 minutes  Director Mathieu Kassovitz   Writer Mathieu Kassovitz   Actors Vincent Cassell  Hubert Kounde  Said Taghmoui   Francois Levantal  Phillippe Nahon   Photography Pierre Aim   Musical Direction Dominique Dalmasso      ©mathieukassovitz.com

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