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" Corpsicle "
— Kathleen Quinlan, Event Horizon

MRQE Top Critic

The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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Guns are hard to come by in France. So when three youths from the projects outside of Paris find a gun, it’s a big deal. It’s even bigger when you consider the gun was dropped by one of the cops sent into the banlieu (“barrio”) to quell a riot that started as a peaceful demonstration against police brutality.

Fine black-and-white cinematography and disaffected French youth
Fine black-and-white cinematography and disaffected French youth

Fresh on DVD from the Criterion Collection, La Haine (Hate) takes place over the course of a day. The lives of Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert (Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Hubert Koundé), are as boring and aimless as they always are, but gnawing at them from inside is the spark of violence.

The riots left them even angrier than they usually are. Hubert is a boxer and his gym was burned down. Other people lost their cars. Still another friend was seriously injured by the police, and if he dies in custody, Vinz says he’ll use the gun he found to shoot a cop in revenge.

There isn’t much of a story arc to La Haine; it’s more a slice of life. It’s no secret that this is a deliberate choice by director Mathieu Kassovitz. In one scene, the three friends sit on what might have once been a playground, listening to an even younger kid talk about what was on TV the other night. When the kid finishes, after two minutes of screen time, the three friends ask for the punch line, the point to his story. But there is no point to the kid’s story, and that itself is the point to Kassovitz’ movie. Life in the projects offers no opportunity and no direction for young men after high school.

The pointlessness of the lives of the characters could make for a boring movie. Indeed, if you have no patience for character studies and slice-of-life films, La Haine is not for you. But it has a lot going for it besides the plot. In addition to the excellent acting and inspired cinematography, its release was a groundbreaking moment in French film history.

To fully appreciate La Haine, you probably had to be living in France in 1995. Cinema was personal, perhaps “safe,” and very French. If you wanted gritty, real portraits of urban life, you turned to American films by Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. A few people may had heard of problems in the banlieu, but it never confronted one at the movies.

Then along comes La Haine, presented in stark (but gorgeous) black and white, featuring gritty, real footage from the projects, with three electric young actors, speaking in a distinctly urban dialect. (The realism was hard-earned; Kassovitz and his three leads lived for six months in the banlieu before filming there so that they could learn the lingo and earn the trust of those who lived there.)

In 1995, you would have never seen anything like it before, at least not from a French filmmaker.

Twelve years later, La Haine lives on in the French psyche. Most recently, it seems prescient of the 2005 riots that took place outside of Paris. In truth, there have been many problems between police and banlieu dwellers in France, for decades. La Haine could have been made any time after about 1980 and it still would have the same resonance today. But it was Kassovitz in 1995 who broke that ground and brought a more American sensibility to French cinema.

Kassovitz had made one feature film before this one and has made many since then (his latest is Gothika, 2003). He has also acted, and he may be most recognizable to American audiences as the young man who became the ideal match for Audrey Tautou in Amelie. He acknowledges in the DVD booklet that because of the success of La Haine, he’s been able to make a lot of films that might never have been funded otherwise. And although he’s done a lot of work since then, he is still chiefly recognized as the director of La Haine.

It is that matter-of-fact attitude that permeates the audio commentary Kassovitz recorded for Criterion. Ego is refreshingly absent. Kassovitz does praise La Haine, but it doesn’t come across as insincere flattery. It seems to be both pride and resignation that this decade-old film is his masterpiece. He doesn’t sound like he has to sell the movie to the DVD audience. Kassovitz also comes across as very intelligent and engaged in the world around him. He rarely seems distracted by what’s on screen, and he usually has something interesting, often even current (as of spring 2007), to contribute, rather than simply recalling who was sick during that day’s shoot, or what the weather was like.

The best of the extra features on the two-DVD set, surprisingly, is the one that has the least to do with the film itself. Featuring three sociologists, Social Dynamite is a fascinating history of housing projects. The three talking heads discuss not only the housing projects in France, but also Chicago and elsewhere in the world. High-rise housing projects were a good idea at one point. They provided affordable living in an otherwise expensive city (in Chicago and New York it may have been in the heart of the city; in Paris it was the outskirts). The density of the housing was supposed to be offset by parks, playgrounds, cafes, and entertainments. But once the housing was in place, the followup economic investment never came, and so the projects became places of isolation, boredom, and little opportunity. Instead of communities and neighborhoods, they became islands of exile for the poor and unwanted. These places were doomed to a downward spiral of poverty and isolation. It doesn’t take a Mathieu Kassovitz to realize that this is a formula for resentment and hate.

But for all of the extra features on the Criterion DVD — there is a 16-page booklet, interviews with the cast and crew, an introduction by Jodie Foster (she helped distribute the film in the U.S.) — they all seem to repeat the same two themes: La Haine is a groundbreaking portrait of life in the banlieu for the young disaffected males; and it features technically excellent black-and-white cinematography. This Criterion release is a great excuse to watch La Haine again.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies