It is almost appropriate that the June 8th and 9th riots in Noisy-le-Grand, a cité East of Paris, were blamed on La Haine, because the film, barely a week old at the time, comes dangerously close to implicating movies as the reason for violence in the French projects. The film’s protagonist and most foolhardy character, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), spends his solitude mimicking Travis Bickle’s iconic “you talkin’ to me?” speech, billboards proclaiming Scarface’s “The World Is Yours” tagline make more than one appearance, and there is even a long, obvious dolly zoom that of course Vertigo. The other two major characters, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Hubert (Hubert Koundé), are smarter than Vinz, with Hubert in particular understanding the social ramifications of fighting back. He provides the narration and uses the image of a man falling from a skyscraper as an analogy for hate and violence in the projects. “So far so good” as you fall, but “it’s not how you fall, it’s how you land.” Eventually, the world catches up to you, and “hate breeds more hate.”
Variations of this speech recur throughout the film, but, heavy-handed as it is, it also focuses the film immensely. Without it, the above mentioned images would implicate film; with it, it instead shows the Americanization of French projects, tells us the anti-hero stories they can relate to, and provides life to the projects, revealing La Haine as a social-realist film about a very specific group of people.
It is within this context that La Haine is successful, although it has plenty of cinematic merits to go along with its explicit “purpose.” The riot montage at the beginning, which mixes found footage with staged shots, is a great work of editing, first letting a dropped Molotov cocktail morph into a dangerous street scene, and from then on relying heavily on sound associations and triggers to jump through space. After the titles, director Mathieu Kappovitz maintains a documentary feel by using non-professional actors whose character names match their own, limiting the story to a single day, relying on title cards that display the time to keep the viewer oriented through lapses, and utilizing long takes to maintain realism. In the first half of the movie, the techniques are especially effective. The characters drift aimlessly, talking amongst themselves non-stop, but never of anything of particular importance, allowing the viewer to soak-in the environment with only the occasional bit of flashy camerawork as a distraction. We get to know Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert, who are a Jewish, Arab, and African immigrant, respectively, and we witness their living conditions, and, with a few references to education, discover their understanding of the social unrest that surrounds them.
We learn early that a cop lost his gun in the previous night’s riots, and as soon as we discover that Vinz, who is determined to kill a cop if an Arab friend injured in the riots does not make it, is in possession of it, the direction of the plot becomes inevitable. The trio goes to Paris, and with it, the film begins to tell a story rather than bring us into another reality. It’s slow-paced, thankfully, and appropriately meanders from one set-piece to the next. Those sets include one disturbing portrait of police abuse that takes sides too easily for my liking, but is nonetheless a well-executed scene that demonstrates the fear, discrimination, and power dynamics that govern the lives of the subjects. It eventually goes where the occasional philosophic waxing and arguments about killing cops lead us to believe it will, but the film’s final few minutes are so beautifully directed that it is hard to complain. It begins with a long shot, the camera following one character as the audio follows another, before conflict breaks out again, and Kappovitz wisely avoids sentiment to instead deliver a vivid realization of the film’s thesis. Given the film’s clear social role, it’s somewhat fitting for it to wear its ideology on its sleeve, but it’s a testament to Kappovitz’ talent that La Haine is as riveting and observational as it is in spite of these flaws. Craft of this level, which rightfully earned him a Best Director award at Cannes, makes it easy to overlook the flaws in his script.