Encapsulating the explosive socio-political conditions of France in the mid-90s was always going to be a difficult job. Nevertheless, Mathieu Kassovitz somehow manages it in just 98 minutes in his second feature film La Haine (1995). Released amongst the tidal wave of fear and xenophobia spurred on by the far-right populist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, La Haine is a thought-provoking yet brutal look into the lives of three young men in the Parisian banlieues the day after a violent riot.
I first saw this film at the age of 14, having known or understood little about the sort of issues that the film was going to explore. Despite this, even the inexperienced viewer is left in little doubt by the end about what constitute the themes and overarching message of the film. Scattered throughout the film are references to subject matters such as crime, poverty, unemployment, and lack of education.
However, coming away from the film you get the sense that Kassovitz shines the light on police brutality the most. In one scene, he points to the hypocrisy of the police – three plain-clothed shady looking officers confront and harass the three protagonists as they leave the apartment of a wealthy area of the city. They are subsequently brought to a station where they are held from the neck up whilst being questioned, despite not actually being suspected of anything. It begs the question – if this is how the banlieues youth are treated by the police, can we really be surprised when they start rioting?
Through watching the film, you really get a sense of the film’s social realism. Certain scenes in La Haine immerse you so much into the setting that you almost forget that you are watching a film and not there yourself. The tracking camera, following the three protagonists in their misadventures, is an important part of creating this realism. The film was originally shot in colour but was projected in black and white, which better reflects the grim and bleak setting of the film.
To fully appreciate the film’s realism, one must consider how much the film contradicts the typically romanticised portrayal of Paris on the big screen. Whilst the French New Wave may have been ground-breaking in its rejection of traditional filmmaking conventions, Kassovitz’s depiction of the socio-economic underclass of the banlieues signified a major shift from the dominant tone of storytelling.
Indeed, La Haine was part of the Young French Cinema which emerged in the 1990s, focusing on contemporary issues like unemployment, political shifts to the right, and Aids. What the films of this movement all have in common is their ability to confront the uncomfortable themes which society has long cast to the side. Nowhere is this thematic shift in storytelling more present than in the last line of the film: “it’s about a society on its way down. And as it falls, it keeps telling itself. So far so good… So far so good… So far so good’’.
Image credits: Alatele Fr via Flickr