The Conversation is a feature at PopOptiq bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their eleventh piece, they discuss Mathieu Kassovitz’s gritty yet sleek portrait of life on the margins of Paris, La haine (1995).
There’s a moment within the first act of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (1995) that finds the film’s central trio – Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé), and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), three young male descendants of immigrants living in the housing projects of outer Paris – confronted by a news crew. In the protests and riots following the brutalization of a friend, Abdel Ichaha (inspired by the real-life killing of Makome M’Bowole while in the custody of Parisian police in 1993), the news crew voyeuristically inquires into the opinions of those who very well may be the first group of “locals” their excursion encounters, yet the journalist and cameraman remain steadfastly enshrined in their car as they bark questions onto the decrepit playground that contains our main characters. Although La haine suggests its central trio to have been familiar if not intimate with Abdel, they refuse both the burden of representation and the opportunity to exhibit “respectability” to a social structure that deems poor non-whites to be suspicious and disruptive by default. After cursing at the news crew, Vinz tells the fleeing minivan that their neighborhood isn’t a drive-thru zoo. The option of “redemption” through mainstream media – which frames their protest only as evidence of social degeneracy – is only assumed a possibility for those for whom the devices of media most benefit. Vinz and his friends know that no performance of bourgeois civility will save them from the inevitable descent outlined in Hubert’s opening narration: “So far, so good…”
Vinz. Hubert, and Saïd’s response to the media in this scene outlines the distinct mode of representation that La haine pursues for its central characters. La haine is a film uninterested in comforting respectability politics, or portraying noble and modest heroes whose principles withstand the forces of blight. Despite following a trio of friends representative of different ethnicity groups prone to victimization by a white French majority – Vinz is Jewish, Hubert is Afro-French, and Saïd is Arab-Maghrebi – these characters do not function as metonyms for the young male non-white experience in the margins of 1990s Paris. Bringing their performances to life with remarkable depth, Kassovitz stages each of these characters wrestling with the anger and potential eruptions between one another with specificity, nuance, and difference, allowing each character to deal distinctly with a barrage of unpredictable and potentially explosive circumstances of oppression and adversity. While the film follows their actions closely, the point is essentially that these characters are powerless – “crime” is variously a means of getting by or the only way to temporary arrest and wield the power of others, namely police, although the latter case exists more as a persistent fantasy (particularly for the hotheaded Vinz) than a reality.
Kassovitz’s characterization of Vinz. Hubert, and Saïd is the scaffolding that realizes the power of La haine, a film that – now exactly twenty years on – resonates as tragically relevant in its subject matter, urgent in its politics, and enduringly fresh in its style. Despite the film’s setting and content, Kassovitz rejects neo-realism’s tendency to follow the martyrs of the virtuous amongst the invisible (a style whose global influence was probably least felt in France anyway), opting instead for a more ambivalent approach that tells a story of three subjects lost to a system – through characters intricately realized in their humanity, but subjects nonetheless. And while Kassovitz incorporates news footage into his diegesis, his camera (and that of his cinematographer, Pierre Aïm) weaves dynamically with noirish lighting and stunning composition through the cramped quarters of housing projects to the privileged streets of a Paris proper that flanks our un-heroes at their every turn. La haine’s shooting style is a pleasure for the eyes, and fluid in its travel, producing an ambivalent effect in juxtaposition with its content.
The intent of Kassovitz’s approach is perhaps clearest in a brief scene of character exposition for Vinz. He is in the bathroom of his family apartment looking at himself in the mirror, reciting lines from Taxi Driver, as the camera moves over his head and into his mirror’s gaze (an impressive shot that I suspect was the result of a sly use of a body double) where his flexing body announces himself as the neighborhood kingpin. We see Vinz strut throughout La haine, performing a desperate plea for masculine power. When Vinz gets his hands on a revolver, the fatalism announced in La haine’s opening voice-over is sealed with the promise of tragedy. The weapon imbues the majority of the film’s runtime with an almost unsustainable tension as to how this Chekovian device will be inevitably wielded. Hubert and Saïd beg Vinz at various key points to calm down, with Hubert in one instance placing himself in the gun’s gaze in hopes of avoiding a bloodbath within a posh city apartment. Kassovitz situates the audience, like his friends, at a critical distance from Vinz. Yet, by virtue of Cassel’s charismatic, star-making performance, Kassovitz also highlights the perpetual helplessness and systemic injustice concentrated in Abdel that leaves a palpable hole in Vinz that he covers with compensatory masculinity. Yet with the film’s dynamic camerawork, we also see Vinz in that mirror as he sees himself: the star of his own story, a man of grand gestures framed as a figure of power to be reckoned with. Two conflicting realities exist side by side throughout La haine: the gaze of the news cameras, and Vinz’s heightened view of himself.
Further eschewing the assumptions of a socially-engaged cinema that demands squalor to be framed unquestionably as such, La haine firmly entrenches the viewer into a glimpse of life at the margins as seen by those residing in it. In a stunning shot that floats from a DJ’s window out towards the skyline of the suburbs, blasting music that protests, “Fuck the Police,” the tactics of empowerment within subjugation are rendered beautifully clear. As Ginette Vincendeau summarizes about La haine’s mode of representation, “…the film’s focus is narrow, choosing the violent and spectacular above the mundane.”
And that is what makes Kassovitz’s many sudden returns to the trenches of reality all the more affecting. In one blood-boiling scene, Hubert and Saïd, having been captured by the police, have their bodies mercilessly bent and stretched by cops in the name of demonstrating strategies of abuse to a rookie whose face registers neither the depraved joy of the torturers nor empathy with the pain of their victims. As with many scenes in La haine, this one threatens to burst forth into fatal tragedy at any moment, an eruption that is, in this case, cut short despite the terrible violence on display. Assertions and performances of power by these young men cannot compete with the impersonal, systemic, and pervasive hate that sees their bodies as invitations for official violence. The movies that exist in the heads of these three (especially Vinz), and their understandings of themselves as individuals, comes into constant conflict with a reality that treats them as anything but human.
Like Spike Lee’s seminal and incendiary film Do the Right Thing (1989), the contemporary relevance of Matthew Kassovitz’s La haine is incredibly distressing. Both films, both now more than twenty years old, focus on racial discrimination and abuses of power perpetuated by a system of checks and imbalances. When I watched the film for the first time this past summer, the scene Landon mentions in his introduction – in which a local news crew confronts our three young immigrant protagonists – haunted me. The protagonists turn on the news crew as a group of sensationalist voyeurs and their frustration is palpable. The scene almost distracted me because it forced me to realize how little had changed, as I could not help but think of the #BlackLivesMatter reform movement and the anger and criticism directed at our media outlets for perpetuating an ideological double-standard: whites protest, blacks riot. (Perhaps even more distressing? I also watched Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film Medium Cool in close proximity to Kassovitz’s and an identical scene occurs between Robert Forster and some black protesters in Chicago). The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Yet, as Landon writes, La haine approaches these socioeconomic problems through pathos. Do the Right Thing, while a powerful and incredible film, occasionally loses this rhetorical quality due to its massive scope. While Kassovitz focuses his story on three characters and allows each some room to establish their character and psychological drives, Lee does not have the same luxury because he is dealing with a much larger ensemble of roughly ten characters. Thus, in Lee’s film, the richness of some of the characters (Da Mayor’s personal tragedy and arc) comes at the expense of others who feel more metonymic (John Turturro’s Pino, for example).
Like any form of persuasive rhetoric – be it a speech or a film – Kassovitz’s approach has its advantages and disadvantages. The major advantage is that characterization and richness provide a hook to the more traditional audience. However, depending on the viewer, a heavy emphasis on pathos can feel emotionally manipulative or, due to its focus on the individual, lacking in the appropriate context. For example, by focusing on the violence directed upon Hubert and Saïd at the hands of some racist cops, a systematic problem becomes localized and, to a certain extent, can be rationalized away by the defensive viewer. I think back to Robin Wood’s article “Ideology, Genre, and Auteur” in which Wood outlines how Hollywood films embody and perpetuate certain ideological values (examples would include capitalism, the Protestant work ethic, legalized heterosexual monogamy, etc.). Wood’s outline includes the cynical and yet largely true observation that American ideology presents the states as a “land where everyone is or can be happy; hence the land where all problems are solvable within the existing system (which may need a bit of reform here and there but no radical change).”
Essentially, a defensive viewer may watch this scene and react in one of two ways (or perhaps both). First, s/he may try to rationalize the act of violence on behalf of the police officer. We have seen this time and time again with police violence directed towards African-Americans where the narrative becomes about what Michael Brown was doing before he encountered Darren Wilson and how the young student at Spring Valley would not have been body slammed if she was respectful (the bankruptcy of this position is exposed by the paradoxical martyrization of white “rebels” like Kim Davis and Cliven Bundy). Essentially, at its most radical, the position would argue that the police officers were “forced” to take action and perhaps acknowledge that the level of action was unjustified. By localizing the problem of police violence, it looks like an outlying exception and that larger reforms are unnecessary. Justice can be served by separating the bad apples from the rest. Secondly, and intertwined with the first reaction, is the interpretation that if only Hubert and Saïd were respectable, they would not have gotten into trouble in the first place (as Landon discusses).
Lee’s film, by emphasizing scope, turns systematic racism into a much larger issue, more difficult to rationalize away via the “a few bad apples spoil the bunch” logic. However, the flatness of some of the characters – perhaps magnified by baroque stylistic qualities of Do the Right Thing – can also force the defensive viewer to rationalize away Pino’s actions because he seems less like a person and more like a mouthpiece. (I hope it doesn’t need to be said, but I am not saying that either films do this from my perspective. Instead, I’m trying to analyze them as art works engaging in an act of persuasion.)
Obviously, it’s incredibly difficult to capture the socioeconomic and ideological nuances of a problem like racism in a two-hour film while avoiding the rhetorical pitfalls to which I’ve alluded here. For instance, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) sacrifices nuance for scope and essentially made a two and a half hour artsy version of Reefer Madness (1936). Indeed, and perhaps it will come as no surprise, but the larger canvas afforded by television seems better suited to such subject matter. David Simon’s The Wire (2002-2008) can wade into the waters of both of these social issues with a nuance and complexity that two hours simply cannot afford. In the absence of actual reforms taken towards racial injustice in the past twenty years (As much as I celebrate the removal of a Confederate flag from a state house, I worry that we overemphasized how much change that brought), perhaps the best starting place we can take as cinephiles is to screen both Do the Right Thing and La haine and think about how white privilege extends far beyond our own borders.