Paris has a cinematic identity quite unlike any other. For if you’re a cinephile in Paris, it’s impossible not to conjure memories of all the beloved movies that have been shot in the city. Walking along the banks of the Seine, you might imagine yourself accompanying Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade. You stroll down the Champs Elysees with Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. At Shakespeare & Co, you smile at the thought of Jesse and Celine’s Before Sunset reunion. At Montmartre’s Café des Deux Moulins, you crack a crème brûlée with a spoon, like Amélie would. It’s the Paris invented for the cinephile’s imagination: the Polaroid version of it rendered through La vie en rose-tinted glasses. However, hidden and out-of-focus in most of the city’s filmography are its crime and inequality, its issues with racism and police brutality. Before La Haine, few had imagined a Paris beyond its obvious romanticised associations.
In 1995, then 28-year-old Mathieu Kassovitz gave us a portrait of Paris unlike any other, drained of all its colour and gloss. La Haine shows us the other Paris, the banlieues (suburbs) around the edges of the city other-ed after years of being ignored and neglected by the French government. Unlike the suburbs in the US, the banlieues were not created to house the middle class population, but the working class and immigrant families following a post-war housing crisis. When the public investments began to dry up, they turned into the run-down ghettos we see in La Haine (and even its spiritual sequel in Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables).
Chanteloup-les-Vignes, the banlieue depicted in La Haine, is a concrete jungle of public housing complexes. The vacant lots are rendezvous points for drug traffickers and addicts. There’s graffiti scrawled on the walls of decaying buildings and underground tunnels. Police vehicles make frequent rounds around the neighbourhood. Like Spike Lee’s Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing, this is Paris as a perpetual war zone where the occupants are always on the brink of violence.
In this dystopian environment, three young men try to survive a vicious cycle of hate. Kassovitz endows each of them with a specific ethnicity and personality. Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is Jewish, hates the police, and always has one finger on the trigger. Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is African, a pacifist, and desperate to find a way to break the cycle. Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is an Arab Muslim, more carefree than his two friends, and acts as mediator when required.
We follow the three of them in the aftermath of a riot in a banlieue. The violence erupted after their teenage friend Abdel was left comatose in a hospital after being brutally beaten by a cop. The riots and police brutality are shown via archival footage, which gives broader context and authenticity to what remains an issue in the banlieues to this day. When Vinz recovers a gun lost by a cop during the riot, he feels empowered, and decides to use it to on a cop if Abdel succumbs to his injuries. With the gun, Vinz becomes a ticking time-bomb of rage. The lost gun becomes a symbol of the system, the wheel that keeps the cycle of violence running. What Vinz fails to realise is that killing a cop won’t break the cycle, but shift it to a higher gear.
Unable to reconcile their cultural and national identities, these youth find relief from their unpleasant reality in cinema and music. The universal relatability of pop culture makes it the only point of reference to understand their own existential and social malaise. So, Vinz seems to believe violence in films as an idealised vision of heroism. He is not just imitating Travis Bickle, he is embodying him, as guns turn from an obsession into an outlet for his repressed anger. This is in contrast to Hubert and Saïd, who find their outlets in boxing and graffiti respectively.
The three travel to Paris and spend a night wandering around a city which treats them as outsiders. Kassovitz stages the shots in the banlieue and the city in a contrasting manner. At home in the banlieue, he opts for long takes and a wide-angle effect to accentuate the characters’ familiarity and comfort in their own commune. In the city, he uses shorter takes and a telephoto’s compressive effect to add to the sense of disorientation they feel in a hostile environment in the darkness of night. The contrast between the banlieue and the city also becomes one between marginalisation and integration.
Vinz, Hubert and Saïd’s rebellion is thus a rejection of a social order imposed by those who don’t have to worry about education, employment or a future beyond the day-to-day. This is in sharp contrast to the rebels without a cause in Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, where a group of bored young radicals execute a series of terrorist attacks across Paris before seeking sanctuary in an empty department store. There is a moral emptiness to their rebellion as they return to the heart of the system they want to crash. It is the same system that shaped their habits, their choice of music, and their preferred apparel brand, but they are too naive to know what they want established in its place.
This explains why La Haine‘s appeal goes beyond its local context and ‘90s setting. Twenty-five years later, it continues to give voice to the voiceless, as countries across the world are held hostage by nationalist forces and anti-immigrant passions. Be it in France or the US, police brutality continues to make the historically oppressed feel more marginalised. Amidst the ongoing coronavirus crisis, this takes on particular resonance in India too, as violence against migrant workers continues to escalate.
In the film’s conclusion, Kassovitz may not offer a hopeful message but it doesn’t make it any less true: with each generation, there will be victims on both sides if neither can find a way past their reciprocal hate. Vinz is a man defined by his hate, but Hubert and Saïd ensure it doesn’t deform him too. On returning to the banlieue, he overcomes his anger and entrusts Hubert to get rid of the gun. As they go their separate ways, a cop pulls over and threatens Vinz. Hubert watches the confrontation from afar, and the tension increases as he advances. You feel the urgency in each step, like he alone can resolve this situation. Just as he is about to intervene, the cop’s gun accidentally goes off, killing Vinz. Hubert draws his gun at the cop and he returns the favour, and the camera passes over the standoff to capture the petrified gaze of Saïd, the eternal mediator. The screen turns to black before we hear a gunshot. We don’t know who lives and who dies as Kassovitz leaves it open-ended to show how the cop and the youth are both victims of the same system, the same cycle where hate fuels hate and violence begets violence.
Updated Date: May 31, 2020 10:27:06 IST
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