More noise than signal

La Haine

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

These days Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 outing La Haine is perhaps best remembered for introducing the world outside of France to a fresh faced Vincent Cassel – fresh faced enough for the then 28 year old to be playing someone I at least interpreted as late teens / early twenties, Vinz. He’s an angry little boy, raging against the circumstances that sees him stuck in the impoverished banlieues on the outskirts of Paris, and specifically at the arrest and severe beating dealt out to his friend Abdel as the police were dealing with a riot, which seems to be a relatively frequent occurrence.

He’s on his way with his friend Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) to meet their marginally older friend and gym owner Hubert (Hubert Koundé), also a small time drug dealer. Hubert is the calm, collected, level headed one of the trio, at least relatively speaking, counselling that not all cops are automatically against them. Saïd’s attitude sits halfway between the two, perhaps tending towards the opinion of whoever he’s talking to at that moment.

La Haine follows the trio as they start off on what’s presented as a typical day in the banlieue, with Vinz desperately trying to appear tough to ingratiate himself with the gangs that lord over the place, largely through his expressed wish to kill a cop. The trio make plans to visit Abdel in hospital, but before they head off to the city, Vinz has something he wants to show his compadres.

In all off yesterday’s kerfuffles, with the rioting and the violence, oi vey, Vinz has managed to get his mitts on a handgun. It was left by a policeman, I believe his name was Chekov. Hubert wants Vinz to leave the damn thing behind, knowing that it’s dangerous enough in the right hands, let alone Vinz’s wannabe cop-killing ones, should Abdel not pull through.

And off they go, in to the centre of Paris, where they both subvert and entirely justify the stereotypes of the miscreant, trouble-making youths. Still, when Saïd and Hubert are picked up by the police, essentially for loitering, it’s hard to see the police as being the good guys in this dynamic, as they abuse, insult, beat and humiliate the boys, seemingly only as a demonstration exercise to teach a new cop how to be an asshat.

Released, but having missed the last train home, the night stretches out for them to doss about, but hearing news that Abdel has died infuriate them. Things look hairy after a run-in with a group of skinheads they earlier insulted from the safety of a rooftop, although they get the upper hand once Vinz pulls his handcannon out. Vinz threatens to kill one of the skinheads as a stand-in for the cops that he’s sworn a vendetta against, but Hubert manages to talk him down and in the process tear down the tough-guy, gangster-wannabe act that Vinz has been trying to run with, proving there’s light at the end of the tunnel for him.

Unfortunately for Vinz, as Half Man Half Biscuit would tell us, the light at the end of the tunnel is the light of an oncoming train, and look away now if you don’t want to hear the results, one of the more obnoxious cops shows up as they return home in the morning and, accidentally, shoots and kills Vinz. Hubert, who’d earlier taken Vinz’s gun off him for safekeeping, pulls it on the cop. It fades to black. There is a gunshot. Who wins? Most likely, no-one.

It’s a powerful ending, but a bit of a bolt from the blue. Sure, it’s not far off how you might expect this would end given the first half hour, but I’d rather hoped it would subvert that expectation given that it does a pretty effective job of developing the characters, or certainly Vinz’s, over the course of the piece. It doesn’t seem like his story should end this way, and no just because there is no reason whatsoever for the cop to do what he does apart from as a means to force this ending. Impactful, perhaps, but rather falls apart on analysis.

And it’s not like the ending really fits with the tone of the rest of the film either. While, admittedly, that description what I just gave with the essential facts of the film sounds pretty grim and gritty, and sections are, a lot of this is really quite enjoyably lighthearted, perhaps to the detriment of the parts where it’s aiming at somewhere between The 400 Blows and Scum. There’s a twist of surrealism throughout that I enjoyed being baffled about. I do not know why there is a cow wandering around that apparently only Vinz can see, and I’m just as baffled as the lads are by the auld geezer’s monologue in the public bathroom.

Mathieu Kassovitz shows a lot of potential in La Haine, which does not appear to have been fully realised – one could argue that the definite plus this film puts in his column in no way matches the minus of Gothika. At least he’s finding regular work as an actor, notably appearing in certified Fuds On Film Favourite Amélie.

Is this the defining document of disaffected mid-nineties French youth? As it’s the only one I think I’ve seen, I suppose it is by default, although how true this was to the facts on the ground I can only guess at. Certainly, it feels authentic, while being a vibrantly told and likeable character piece, even in the moments where the characters are not being all that likeable themselves.

This is another of the films I hadn’t seen before preparing for this podcast, and while it’s certainly not the obvious classic the way that Schindler’s List was, I certainly enjoyed my time with the film and would be happy to recommend it to anyone looking for some urban commentary along with an absorbing little character piece.