DVD Review
By Richard Armstrong




Paris is Burning:

La Haine

Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz.

Cinematography by Pierre Aim.
Edited by Mathieu Kassovitz and Scott Stevenson.
With Vincent Cassell, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui.
Originally released in 1995; black-and-white, 93 minutes.
On Region 2 DVD from Optimum


    “What are these kids doing on the streets at 2 am? How dare they mock the police? What is happening in this country?” So the elderly lady complains in Aulnay-sous-Bois, scene of some of the bitterest civil unrest to rock Paris since May ‘68. The same day this quote appeared in the London Guardian, the Independent reported 1,300 cars burnt across the country on the previous Saturday 5 November. In the upper Normandy town of Evreux north of Paris, a shopping mall, a post office, two schools and fifty cars were destroyed by fire that weekend. As across the English Channel fireworks commemorated the Puritan attempt to raze Parliament on 5 November 1605, gangs entered the heart of Paris hurling petrol bombs at parked cars. Six cars were set ablaze near the offices of Libération newspaper on the rue Beranger. On Wednesday 9 November a primary school in the southern city of Toulouse was torched. In the Guardian that Monday kebab store owner Mounir had been ambivalent: “Burning cars and dodging cops is a lot more fun than playing video games.” On the 9th, President Chirac enacted a curfew law they used in 1955 to quell riots in France’s former colony Algeria. “The country is now being ruled by martial law”, reported Lucy Manning in London’s Channel 4 News that night. Earlier the same day, the London Times spoke to a senior police officer: “The kids don’t understand the gravity of their deeds. We call it the Game Boy effect. They go out and do over cops like they do over people on their video games.”
    What began on 27 October with the accidental deaths of two young boys fleeing a routine police stop-and-search in a Paris suburb, triggered 12 nights of unrest from Rennes on the edge of Brittany to the German border, from Lille up near Belgium to Toulouse near the Pyrénées. Anxious to court the far right in time for the 2007 Presidential contest, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy dubbed the rioters “racaille” (scum), fuelling the resentment of thousands of immigrant families in the rundown ‘banlieux’ (suburbs) that ring French towns and cities. In a country renowned for its tranquil model of Republican virtue, unemployment, job discrimination, bad housing and heavy-handed police tactics have led to images resembling civil war. Of all the old colonial powers, France traditionally nurtured a policy of ethnic integration. If he worked hard, the Moroccan or Senegalese could become part of the metropolitan establishment. Algeria even had the status of ‘département’ in accordance with the local administrative system in mainland France. But such a democratic attitude has not survived into the post-colonial era. Since the ‘60s as France lost her colonies, notably Algeria in 1962 following a bloody and controversial war of liberation, waves of Maghrebi, African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants have poured into the country. Many are now shut away in the banlieux. With unemployment running as high as 40 per cent, an entrenched black economy around drugs and firearms, and apathetic social services, these soulless high rises have become a wasteland, off the radar for the middle classes, off the map for their public servants. In a searing editorial in the Independent on 7 November, political analyst Mary Dejevsky wrote: “France is in flames. Not the elegant, discreet, bourgeois France that is Paris and the great cities. Not the countryside, where the late grape harvest is peacefully nearing its end and the white cows graze untroubled, as they have for generations. But the other France: the France that is marooned between town and country, shut away behind ugly concrete walls, confined inside rotting tower blocks: the France of the cités, the banlieux and the quartiers difficiles. The France that has failed.”


    Optimum’s re-release of La Haine in a tenth anniversary edition could not have been more timely. La Haine means ‘hate’ in English, and to watch this angry and precipitate account of alienation and disorder in a Parisian banlieue, and then survey the escalating news coverage, is to be brought up short by the eerie mirror art occasionally holds up to experience. Released in 1995, the film emerged out of years of urban turmoil consequent upon the perceived failure of Mitterrand liberalism, and the return to conservatism with the re-election of Jacques Chirac that year. Despite the country’s Republican image, and Chirac’s platform of healing “fracture sociale”, the French policy of suppressing the marks of ethnic identity—witness the banning of the Moslem women’s ‘hijab’ in 2004—seemed to deny origins and indigenous cultures. In France there are only two definitions of citizenship: National and Foreigner. While the recent rioting has tended to be sparked by economic and political rather than strictly racial discord, the rioters overwhelmingly hailed from predominantly North African communities simply because the suburbs are predominantly peopled by second and third generation French of black and Maghrebi origins. Playing to British smugness before our Gallic neighbor’s plight, a commentator on Channel 4 News noted how much “more explicitly racist” the French response to multiculturalism is compared with the British tendency towards racial integration, and involving mosques, synagogues and community leaders in the resolution of racial tension. In his audio commentary here, screenwriter-director Mathieu Kassovitz relates how La Haine was inspired by cases like that of the young Moslem, incensed when the police molested his girlfriend, who complained and was taken down into a garage beneath a tower block and set on fire by police officers. La Haine begins in the aftermath of rioting as three young ‘banlieuesards’ Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Vinz (Vincent Cassell) hang out, sell drugs, antagonize the police and each other, and attempt to gain entry to the hospital ward where a young man, Abdel Ichaha, their friend brutalized by police, now lies in a coma. They then board a Métro for the heart of Paris.
    Saïd stands beneath towering high rises and calls for Vinz. This is home, but he seems dwarfed and imprisoned by it. The suburban cityscape resembles nothing so much as the site of a terrorist outrage after the ambulances have left. Broken glass, smashed concrete, twisted metal: you are reminded of Beirut, Gaza, Baghdad. Or the deserted bunkers of Auschwitz. Unlike many a hip oppositional opus, the monochrome cinematography in La Haine is not grainy cool but lucid window. To get the right contrasts, the original negative was color, before being printed in black and white. (To get a feel for how western reviewers pigeonholed this film as a grainy angry harbinger of adolescent cool, read Matt Feeney in Slate, just one of those who reproduced the myth that La Haine was shot in black-and-white). The result is rich and detailed detritus inscribed with the graffiti of exclusion and outrageous anger: YOUR MOTHER SUCKS BEARS. Evoking painful French memories present and past—suburban rioting has occurred regularly from 1986 onwards—the police with their sniffer dogs recall Nazi camp kapos. La Haine toys knowingly with the historical resonances and ontological possibilities of film, a perennial concern of French cinema and French film theory. Significantly, Kassovitz played the young man who contrives to make of himself a resistance hero in Un Héros trés discret (A Self-Made Hero, 1996). According to the postwar Gaullist French self-image, the Resistance were the best of what France has to offer. It is an image reproduced in the films of postwar directors like Jean-Pierre Melville and Louis Malle.


    La Haine opens with television footage of rioting, fractured shards of record in which visored officers ram squealing dark protestors, the sky flecked with flying rock, a hatchback burning mercilessly. At the signal ‘10:38’ we segue into the evenly lit stable camerawork in which Saïd, Hubert and Vinz’s story takes place. The time check initiates a gripping countdown. It also demarcates these records, the official account of history, from the subjective account traditionally proffered by auteur cinema. Descending from a hallowed French tradition—‘60s cinéma-vérité, Godard—Kassovitz incurs that especially French liaison between movie aesthetics and radical intents. This is modern France, 24 times a second. Notice how the CCTV camera, arch trapping of officialdom, makes the banlieuesards seem like looming grotesques as they negotiate the door etiquette of an upmarket inner Parisian address. In the suburbs the men are solicited by a television crew. The aesthetic/political contrast between seeing them through the camera’s aperture—looming, grainy, swearing (at us)—and the footage of them amid the nuances of their world and their subjectivity deliberately proposes the polarization, and the fracture that goes with it, that is this film’s raison d’être. Kassovitz talks about the decision to use wide angle lenses in the suburbs so as to place the men in their usual environment, and long lenses in Paris to reinforce their atomization. Polarization is key to the French genre of ‘polar’, the cops and robbers template to which the popular 1982 thriller La Balance subscribed. Yet, according to its bourgeois industry agenda, that film exploited rather than explored fracture, with its clownish and venal immigrant gangsters, revealing how much more complex Kassovitz’s protagonists are. La Haine is full of images of faces behind glass, camera lenses, window panes, car windows, as one France stares uncomprehendingly at another France.
    As he suggests, Kassovitz is also very aware of how polarization can seem insurmountable. There is too much stuff to be overcome. In the private gallery view where the suburban interlopers find themselves, we are invited with them to mock the art on display. But then we draw the line, squirming as these delinquent boys attempt to pick up two women, seeming willfully to avoid the complications of intimacy by insulting and threatening these initially curious people. Cinematographer Pierre Aim keeps the distance of the embarrassed onlooker. In a film in which the pretty faces of bourgeois French cinema helped legitimize this report from the fringes, Karin Viard’s perplexed gallery habitué evokes the middle class world of another 1995 release, La Séparation, in which Viard is featured along with Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Auteuil. As Saïd and his friends try to hotwire a car on a Paris street, Vincent Lindon shows up, the distraught husband in the 1992 marital drama La Crise tapping on the window because he needs to talk about his estranged wife. Like the best of ‘jeune cinéma’—People on Sunday, Breathless, Trainspotting—Kassovitz and his crew were aware that official cinema icons are fair game when you are trying to scale the walls of the industry. In a film built on face-offs, there are some extraordinary visages in La Haine. Earlier, Vinz does his Travis Bickle shtick in the mirror. Later, in a suburban police station, the camera, like a cop, warily circles Vinz and Hubert, recording every jagged angle on the Jew’s face and each sinuous curve of Hubert’s African brow and lip. Far from the ateliers of official French art and the chambers of the Elysées Palace, these faces—exotic, grotesque, felt—draw attention to ethnic subjectivity in a world increasingly intent on eradicating difference. The recent riots, like La Haine, are not about race in the strong sense that they are about difference. The Republic’s wake-up call, these faces make us think about what it is to be different, and what it is to be a national.


    Just as La Haine scored with the young in arthouses in France and abroad, the anger and its signs get passed from one generation to another. In a cinema Vinz toys with the police revolver he has found while a little kid looks on. Later, Zinedine Soualem’s undercover cop brutalizes Saïd and Hubert while the cop’s protégé looks and learns. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if hate and violence destroy from inside out, integrity can also come from within. According to Kassovitz, there are lots of good cops on the French streets. It is just that they are part of a machine and if they don’t think they become robots. This film’s portrait of the oppressor is careful, not to say nuanced. One plain-clothes guy promises to get Hubert another grant to restore the gym burnt down in the riots. (Compare this pug-nosed figure with the handsome cop Richard Berry played in La Balance, about whom Kassovitz and his buddies joke in an outtake included here.) An older officer seems avuncular, near retirement, doesn’t need this… In a ‘30s Warner gangster programmer it would have been Pat O’Brien. You begin to get a bigger picture.
    Big quiet boxer Hubert comes to seem like the film’s moral center. He gives his drugs earnings to his mother to pay the utility bills. When he is shouting down the irascible Vinz, Koundé and Cassell’s face-offs are some of the most memorable moments of the Tarantino era. Yet Hubert’s charisma is far from that of philosophical blacks in the Samuel L. Jackson or Morgan Freeman moulds. There is nothing token about Kassovitz’s protagonists. The point is that Arabs, Africans and Jews become buddies because they live in the same social dumping ground, endure the same shit. Matt Feeney argues that the racial trio was too pat. But if Nicolas Sarkozy darkly hinted that Islamists were behind the recent rots, the grievances of Saïd, Hubert and Vinz, the denizens of Clichy-sous-Bois, Grigny, Rennes, Lille….were material and geopolitical, not racial or religious.
    But what kills us all is what to do about it. Across Europe, racial integration has been an historical bugbear. Violence invariably comes out of it. There is a telling moment of calm after Vinz cannot bring himself to blow a young skinhead’s face off. This is definitely not Game Boy. Literally staggered by the horrific energy that violence generates, the actors seem to take five, Cassell almost throwing up as he recovers himself. From that moment on, the film could go in any direction. Neither Vinz nor we are prepared for the moment when a cop’s gun inadvertently discharges, blowing Vinz’s brains over the side of a car. Hubert is unable to help his friend this time. The moment staggers everyone, banlieuesard, cop and we on the other side of the screen. Where is this going? As far as is known, nobody died in the recent French riots. But the faces have not gone away. As a cop said in La Balance: “We may have lost Algeria, but we still have Belleville.”

—Richard Armstrong




Copyright © 2005 by Richard Armstrong