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La Haine

Director – Mathieu Kassovitz – 1995 – France – Cert. 15 – 98m

***1/2

Three disenchanted, immigrant youths from a banlieu estate take themselves to Central Paris for 24 hours – in cinemas from Friday, September 11th, on Blu-ray from Monday, November 16th and on BFI Player from Friday, December 18th

There’s a verbal story opening and underscoring La Haine. A man falls off a building. Each storey he passes in his descent, he says, “so far, so good…” “so far, so good…” “so far, so good…” It’s not how you fall, it’s how you land. Cue an image of planet Earth with a flaming Mototov Cocktail descending towards it.

Shot in stylish black and white and set in the aftermath of a riot in a Parisian banlieu, the film follows three young friends who beneath their tough guy street banter are concerned for their friend Abdel who has been hospitalized and may well die. While ‘banlieu’ translates literally as ‘suburb’, the French banlieu is at the rough, opposite end of the social scale from cosy, English ‘suburbia’. The banlieu is more like an English sink estate, full of people at the bottom of the social order, powerless, excluded.

This particular banlieu is home to immigrants of various different ethnic backgrounds: Sayid (Saïd Taghmaoui) is Arabic, Vinz (Vincent Cassell) Jewish and Hubert (Hubert Koundé) Black. Through the course of 24 hours, they hang out first on the estate then later in Central Paris, travelling there by train.

The tone is very much set by the opening. Smeary TV riot footage gives way to images of riot police standing sternly in a socially distanced line, anticipating conflict, beside large police vehicles. Round the corner, at the back of the last van, Sayid spray paints the legend ‘Sayid: Fuck The Police’ on the van’s doors.

The narrative takes place over the course of 24 hours and feels like a free-flowing stream of consciousness as the three acquire the odd handgun or two, watch TV screens in flat interiors or public spaces for news of their friend’s condition or tangle with a variety of characters from girls at an art gallery to a contact in his upmarket, entryphone protected apartment, from skinheads to plain clothes cops. They attempt to steal a car, they get into fights, they get kidnapped or run away. Much of this is mere bravado.

Motifs recur. Vinz has clearly watched Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, screenplay Paul Schrader, 1976) because he reworks Robert De Niro’s iconic “You Talking To Me?” routine in French and makes his finger into the shape of a gun to fire it, with at one point an actual gun appearing in his hand and a policeman seen being blown away. The image of the planet from the opening crops up on billboards adorned with the ironic slogan ‘the world is yours’, later amended by Sayid’s spray paint to ‘the world is ours’ (in French, he changes ‘vous’ to ‘nous’).

Hubert, meanwhile, who works out in a vast basement with a punch bag, bemoans the havoc wreaked on the estate’s gym and very specifically articulates his desire to get out of the place. But there isn’t any way out. When they go to central Paris, they are like fish out of water – it’s not a world in which they fit at all.

It’s not so much plotted as a series of events, one after another. This allows Kassovitz to throw in a scene in a public lavatory where an old man emerges from a cubicle to tell a story about men briefly disembarking from a train in Siberia to relieve themselves, with one taking too long and failing to reboard when it moves off. “What was that about”, one of the three later asks?

The film continues to have an influence to this day: as recent a release as Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, 2019) is unthinkable without it. The current BFI season Redefining Rebellion places the film in a continuum from Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Taxi Driver and leading to Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007), Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, 2015) and Les Misérables.

La Haine is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 11th and on Blu-ray from Monday, November 16th and on BFI Player subscription from Friday, December 18th. Redefining Rebellion runs at London’s BFI Southbank throughout September.

Trailer:

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