Do you know the story of the guy falling from a skyscraper? To reassure himself he keeps repeating “So far so good, so far so good”…But it’s not how you fall that matters, it’s how you land.
If you recognise this line, then you’ll know that this week’s Film is La Haine (Hate): Mathieu Kassovitz’s cult movie of the 90s. One of the most powerful films in the history of modern French cinema, La Haine caused a huge stir when it opened the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.
The making of the film coincided with a period of extreme urban unrest in France in the early 90’s. Strikes and riots caused by Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s austerity measures effectively paralysed the city of Paris in those years. Motivated by the murder of a 17-year-old from Zaïre while handcuffed and in police custody, 26 year old Kassovitz sought to expose the racial and class divisions that were tearing French society apart.
The film opens with documentary footage of one of those riots, “Burnin and Lootin”, Bob Marley’s prophetic song of insurrection playing over the images of rebellious youth fighting against the police. The director dedicated the film to all those who perished during these riots while the film was being made.
Kassovitz won the Palme d’Or for Best Director, the film was critically acclaimed and soon became a massive success in France and later on worldwide. It was the first time the banlieue had ever been represented to a mainstream audience, finally exposing the dark side of the ‘projects’ of Paris plagued by gangs and police brutality, the very product of social exclusion.
The success came not without a debate. When the filmmaker and his cast walked the red carpet it was reported that the French policemen in charge of security turned their backs on them in an act of silent protest due to the way the film approached the topic of police brutality. However, in that public climate the Prime Minister organised a special screening of the film and members of his cabinet were required to see it. A clear demonstration that in 1995, La Haine managed to capture precisely what was wrong with French society.
The story centres on the aftermath of a violent riot, triggered by the hospitalization of a young man called Abdel by the hands of the police. The film follows one day in the lives of three young men of different ethnic backgrounds all born and raised in one of the suburban “ghettos” outside Paris.
There’s the hothead Jew Vinz (Vincent Cassel); the insecure, clownish Arab Said (Said Taghmaoui) and the more even-tempered, pensive African boxer, Hubert (Hubert Koundé).
They are representative of the “other” Paris, marginalized economically and politically, without jobs, without family support and without future prospects. They spend their lives hanging around, wasting time, dealing drugs and getting into daily confrontations with the police who they see as their oppressors. They share a common interest in American hip hop culture, Martin Scorsese movies and sports icons such as Muhammad Ali but what binds them together is their shared frustration with a world that seems to have no regard for them.
Vinz is the angriest character of the trio. After finding a policeman’s gun during the riot, Vinz feels invincible and promises to use the very gun to get revenge on a cop if his friend Abdel were to die. Vincent Cassell delivers a spot-on performance that propelled his successful career. One of the film’s most iconic scenes is when he does an impression of De Niro’s classic “You talking’ to me” moment from Taxi driver. He represents the stereotype of the angry young man who participates in riots, hates the police and has no respect for authority. He has no sense of the bigger picture and we see how his actions are pointless and shortsighted. He thinks violence is the only way to get the respect he deserves, but ends up revealing a fear of violence underneath his apparent aggressiveness.
Said, on the other hand, seems to be searching for his place in the ghetto, and gives no indications of wanting to get out. Struggling to be accepted by the group, his personality is still undefined. He just wants to survive and unlike his friends, takes no moral standpoint on what happens around him. The only thing on his mind is to get his money from a drug dealer. Even after being arrested and brutally harassed by the police, he continues with his dull conversations and stupid jokes. Emblematically the film opens and ends with the close up of Said, his eyes shut, as in an attempt to escape the world.
Hubert, surely the most philosophical character of the group, functions as the moral centrepiece of the film. In stark contrast to Vinz, he harbours the unlikely dream of one day being able to escape the banlieue, he tries to stay away from violence and out of trouble, watching helplessly as hatred breeds around him. The title of the film actually derives from a line spoken by Hubert:
“La haine attire la haine !” “Hatred breeds hatred.”
Hubert’s character senses that an impending tragedy is about to hit them, it is not by chance that it is he who quotes the proverb about the falling man, the allegory that contains the gist of the film’s message.
The characters are not fundamentally bad people, not criminals, nor particularly violent. Instead, they have been marginalized by society because of their social status. The audience is drawn to identify and empathize with them in their desperate, naïve, attempt to survive their victimization and racial exclusion. Their meaningless conversations are emblematic of the general atmosphere of boredom and alienation that is strictly linked to anti social behaviour and criminal activities. It is within this context that we can understand the characters’ confrontational attitudes towards the police and their inability to relate with different elements of French society.
In one scene, the boys somehow manage to get into an art exhibition in Paris and are eventually kicked out when they start insulting two girls and shout abuse at the people inside. This scene shows the boys’ complete inability to interact with people in a respectful manner, they are unwilling to engage in dialogue or incapable to communicate constructively because they lack the basic social tools.
La Haine centers around class rather than race: though the three main characters come from different ethnic backgrounds, Kassovitz is not interested in the assertion of ethnic identity, but the geography of class and society’s general fear of outsiders. The object of attention is ghetto existence as such. What defines and unites the characters is mainly their socioeconomic circumstance: “le malaise des banlieues”, the sickness of the suburbs, is how they are defined by the media, the police and the general public. The scapegoats for all the country’s problems.
Vinz, Said and Hubert go about their business with a conflicted sense of ambivalence regarding the world around them. They would like to be part of the established society but are inevitably shut out from it. La Haine is filled with sarcastic irony and hidden meanings. The three boys are constantly faced with a phrase from an advertisement that is ever-present on billboards saying:
“The World is Yours” Yet, that isn’t the case. These young men have no choices, their lives are predetermined. In one scene Said changes the billboard into “The world is Ours”, as if that’s the closest they can get.
La Haine’s powerful finale comes as a shock, even though the viewer can imagine all along that this is what their story is heading towards. The ticking clock that appears on screen throughout the film builds up the tension like a bomb ready to explode.
Kassovitz’s intention was not to want to provide a solution to the problem of social and racial exclusion, but to show an apocalyptic vision of life in the banlieue. Holding up a mirror of a French society in crisis, plunging towards social disintegration.
It’s not the fall that matters, it’s how you land.
Twenty years later and we still haven’t landed. The film is relevant today more than ever,a frighteningly accurate premonition of the way certain aspects of society perpetuate and aggravate, a call for action for society’s growing gap between rich and poor, and a significant commentary on the vicious circle of hate and violence.