It was the summer of 2014 when I visited Paris for the first time, and like most people, I was mesmerised by the beauty of the city! Its elegant architecture, the famous streets and the historic significance of the place made me want to stay there forever. I remember my tour guide telling me proudly, “Even if you just walk around the streets, you’ll see how rich our culture is, and what it actually means to be French.” I was so much in awe with Paris, and rendered so speechless, I was unable to even think about how something can be so flawless. But when I saw La Haine, I got my answer. I realised that I was shown a part of the room with famous paintings, intricate furniture and expensive artefacts, but not the dark corner that seldom catches one's attention. It’s the part where the walls are damaged and windows broken, but no-one knows about it. Only the ones living under that darkness know what it is like to live in the “Real Paris.”
Directed by Mathew Kassovitz, La Haine (1995) is a film about three young men — Vinz, Said and Huberto who live in the suburbs of Paris; commonly known as ‘la banlieue.’ At the very beginning of the film we learn that Abdel Ichacha, a teen from the suburbs is under critical medical condition after he was “allegedly” tortured and mistreated by the police. What follows is the next twenty hours in the lives of these characters. Every time we see the time on a black screen, there is a clicking sound of a bomb alarming us about each passing second, as if something tragic is about to happen, and it all leads up to a shocking event. The bomb eventually goes off!
Inspired by a real life incident, Kassovitz tries to address the issue of police brutality and misuse of power through his film. However, that only touches the surface; what the film really tries to do is pose a broader question; Why do people lose trust in the authorities?
Of all the European countries, France has perhaps the most sophisticated and the richest culture, where “being French” is almost like a superior, cult status. Post World War II, when people migrated from other European countries and settled in the outskirts of Paris, they were welcomed with resistance from the native French population. Although generations continued to live there, they were always considered to be outsiders, and soon this geographical outwardness took the form of social outwardness. The entire community of immigrants felt alienated from the French culture; so much so, that they were unable to even relate to it. This aspect has been reflected in the film as well, when we see Vinz (a Jew) idolising American pop culture by impersonating Robert de Niro from the Taxi Driver, or wanting to get “The New York hairstyle;” we see Huberto (an Afro-French boxer) with posters of Muhammad Ali all over his room, but there isn’t a single scene or moment where we feel that these characters are part of the French culture. It seems as if they (the immigrants) feel more comfortable with foreign cultures and can much better identify with it, and which, unlike France, welcomes them and ‘accepts’ them.
But Kassovitz has cleverly used the American pop-culture element to create his own style throughout the film. In a particular scene, when we see Vinz look in the mirror and say, “You talking to me?,” the director is also giving homage to one of his favourite film-makers; Martin Scorsesse. Furthermore, even the narrative structure of the film is borrowed from Spike Lee’s Do the right thing. He tries to do what French New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut wanted to do in their films which was to break all the rules of cinema, and that is one of the many reasons why this film works; the rebelliousness of the filmmaker perfectly captures the attitude of the ones living in the outskirts of Paris. From a cinematic point of view, this film is a masterpiece!
For those who wish to understand the grammar (framing, techniques, etc) of cinema, watching this film is a must. It’s interesting because the editing and cinematography of the film is so unconventional, yet it never diverts us from the main story; but rather, skillfully compliments it. The way Cinematographer Pierre Aïm frames the characters against tall buildings to show their insignificance and lack of power, the use of track shots to smoothly transition within a scene, or the poetic aerial shot showing us the literal and metaphorical divide within the society, they all leave an impression on you long after you have seen the film.
The mastery with which this film captures the feeling of violence, anger, frustration and rebelliousness in just over ninety minutes is distinctive and applaudable; but what it also succeeds in achieving is showing the irony and hypocrisy of the world. A common motif used is a billboard with, The world is yours written over it. Whenever Huberto reads it, he smiles a very strange smile, which makes us wonder if it really is everyone’s world? Huberto’s character represents the people (the black community) who have suffered the most, but he still has a silent personality of someone who will never rebel against the system, even in dire situations like when his boxing gym is burnt down during some riots. He knows that the principles of The French Revolution, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity do not exist in real life; the real world is hierarchical where equality is just another word which doesn't apply to everyone. Vinz, on the other hand, is a hyperactive young man wanting to do something against the system, which is ironic because his struggles aren’t as severe as Huberto, and yet, he still wants to indulge in riots and protests to help overcome his frustration. This can be reflected in life today as well; the oppressed tend to remain silent, whereas the others are more likely to rebel against the system, which is very ironic.
Another common motif is of a man falling off a building, and every time he crosses a floor, he says, ‘So far so good… So far so good…’ which is meant to be a metaphor for the society that we live in. With each day that passes, our standards of humanity keep falling, but there is still hope. “It’s about a society falling…On the way down it keeps telling itself: ‘So far so good… So far so good…So far so good…’ How you fall doesn't matter, it’s how you land.” The film leaves you with a very open interpretation; will the man falling down die, or will someone catch him and save his life?
Even after 25 years of its release, La Haine has the same magic that it had when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival for the first time, and won the Kassovitz the best director award. Some films should be watched and felt rather than discussed, and La Haine is one such film. It disturbs you, it makes you uncomfortable, it’s funny, but it’s all true. One must watch it for the truth if nothing else.