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03/01/04

Is La Haine in the neo-realist tradition of European cinema or is it better seen as

expressing trends and concerns of a contemporary European youth culture?

La Haine (1995), Mathieu Kassovitz’s second feature, depicts a day in the life of three

young working-class males who live on a French housing estate, La Nöe, situated in the

rough suburban district of Chanteloup-les-Vignes (Yvleines). Hubert (Hubert Koundé),

Vinz (Vincent Cassel) and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui); black, Jewish-white and beur (slang

for second generation North African) respectively, are three friends who are suddenly

roused by the police beating of another young beur, Abdel. It is revealed that Vinz has

also found a police man’s revolver during a riot the previous day. The beating of Abdul

stirs up revengeful feelings in Vinz as he and his friends hang out in the Cité, visit the

hospital and take the train ride to central Paris. What begins a “regular” day of boredom

becomes an adventure, filled with violence, which inevitably ends in a terrible tragedy.

Another reason for the stir La Haine caused, in critical circles at least, was the way it
broke with the trends and preoccupations of French cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. In
rather crude terms, French cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s is dominated by two
main trends: the so-called `heritage' film (`le cinéma du patrimoine') and the so-called
`le cinéma du look' (also known as `cinéma du Forum des Halles').
(www.sunderland.ac.uk, McNeill, 1998)

According to Ginette Vincendeau in her essay Designs on the banlieue (2000), since the

1960’s, French films about the banlieue (Parisian suburbs) have responded in two main

ways. More “aesthetic” tendencies could include films such as Godard’s Une femme

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mariée (1964) or Claire Simon’s later Scènes de ménage (1991) and the “cinéma du look”

of Luc Besson (Subway, 1985 and Nikita, 1990). These films are largely “auteur” in their

styles and use les banlieues to serve as a background to other themes, like sexual politics

or consumerism. On the other hand, more “Sociological” tendencies show the banlieue as

a central topic and the main approach is more often naturalistic. Such films could

incorporate Pialat’s Loulou (1979) as well as comedies like Merzak Allouache’s Salut

cousin! (1996). Mid-eighties beur-orientated films, such as Hexagone (1994), also fall

into this category since their plots often focus largely on working-class estates.

Working within these said genre territories, and arriving in 1995, La Haine can be seen as

bridging the gap between the two ends of the scale. From an “aesthetic” position it

signalled a stylised affinity with la nouvelle vague of the 1950s and 1960s, rather than the

extravagant production values of the 1980s and 1990's which had seen a number of high

budget films like Léos Carax's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) and Claude Berri's

Germinal (1993). From a “sociological” standpoint La Haine showed genuine interest in

the banlieue and its residents. Thematically too, in its focus on a younger generation in a

contemporary setting, it broke away from the period literary adaptations that were

common in the 1980s and 1990s. La Haine also avoided the typical naturalism of the beur

and banlieue-films with a high use of camera work, film stock, textual references,

immediately signalling Kassovitz as a new French auteur. This ties-in with his

recognition from the French critical journal Cahiers du Cinéma (p.320, Vincendeau,

2000).

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La Haine has been labelled “neo-noir”, “young French cinema” and “cinéma de

banlieue” due to its use of highly stylised black and white cinematography mixed with

contemporary youth themes. It appears that Kassovitz could have taken this inspiration

from Italian neorealist film which also utilises grainy black and white stock, low-cost

handheld documentary location shooting and camera styles, slang or local dialogue and

relatively unknown actors. The traditional neorealist film also followed the lives of

“ordinary” people through mainly “down-to-earth” narratives, seen in La Haine through

the eyes of the banlieue. Furthermore, the movement is said to have influenced the

French Nuevelle Vague, something we could assume Kassovitz could have related to

better. However, Kassovitz has not been recorded in any interview crediting or

referencing De Sica (Bicycle thieves, 1948) or alike. Neither has he expressed interest in

Godard or other leaders of the French new wave. Instead he often incites more

“commercial” sources;

Kassovitz is not always a reliable source, but two comments which are repeated seem
likely to be reliable indications of how he approached the film: Mean Streets is his
favourite film and he was not consciously trying to create the French equivalent of a
‘hood’ film.

Everything about the shooting of the film, the performances and the overall approach

to the narrative denies Hollywood whilst validating American Independents. (p. 73-4,

Stafford, 2000)

Stafford goes on to point out that La Haine and Mean Streets (1973) share great

similarities in their camerawork, music and relationship between the characters and their

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environments. Just like Scorsese, Kassovitz had slightly more money and plenty more

experience than in his previous films and so had the chance to vividly experiment with

the camera. In a memorable bar scene, Scorsese tracks the camera back from Keitel in

slow motion as he bathes the bar in red light. Scorsese himself refers to Sam Fuller and

his use of the tracking camera: “Doing that one long take creates so much in emotional

impact, giving you a sense of being swept up in the fury and the anger” (p.74, Stafford,

2000).

“The aim was to make the estate seem beautiful, supple, fluid. I had the money I
needed…. That’s the danger- when you can afford to you’re tempted to use every
trick you can think of. That’s the way I am. If I know I got tracks in the truck, I can’t
just leave them there…”
(Excerpt from a Kassovitz interview by Bourguignon and Tobin, 1999, reprinted on
p.40, Stafford, 2000)

It emerges that whether from Scorsese or from his understanding of French criticism of

American cinema, Kassovitz was certainly aware of the impact of his roving

camerawork- to give feeling of an emotional attachment to the estate and the characters

portrayed therein.

Also much like Mean Streets, the music in La Haine works to confirm a scene’s

authenticity and local culture. Both films not only contain relatively memorable music,

but music that fits the narrative. The authorial stamp of the director is clearly evident in

the choice of the largely French rap score. One vital example of this in La Haine is when

the DJ in the tower block window creates a “mix” of contemporary French rap group

Supreme NTM and a classic 1960’s Edith Piaf song. NTM’s “Fuck the police” lyrics

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stand out ironically to Piaf’s, a singer who was much an icon for right-wing French army

troops as they occupied Algeria thirty years earlier and NTM’s words definitely echo

Vinz’s hate of the police. The music in Scorsese’s Mean Streets often originates on screen

from a juke box or car radio. This is also the case in La Haine where the music remains

highly diegetic to the image on screen.

Both directors also organised their actors and their relationships to their environments

well, so the audience had a true sense that the characters “fit in” and “belong”. The

setting to the characters in Mean Streets was close to Scorsese’s memories growing up in

Little Italy and Harvey Keitel was known to Scorsese through his New York University

experience (p.75, Stafford, 2000). Kassovitz, who although did not grow up in the

banlieue, knew Taghmaoui through his two good friends, Koundé and Cassel. These close

director/actor relationships gave the strong sense in both films that these were no actors

playing roles, but just people “being themselves”.

However, no matter how much Kassovitz has been influenced by American directors and

no matter how much he has used them to ‘open up and hybridise’ (p.33, Stafford, 2000)

his films and French culture, La Haine is still a French film with recognisable French

locations. The rap music in La Haine is spoken in French and lyrically concerns the

French youth, even if it is traditionally an American music. Kassovitz could have gained

some French filmmaking influence from working with his father, also a director.

Kassovitz’s first short film is also called Fierrot le pou (wordplay on Godard’s Pierrot le

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Fou, 1965); the French new wave influence is definitely there somewhere, negative or

positive.

However much Kassovitz insists that he was not trying to make a French version of a

“hood” film, La Haine still echoes Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Clockers (1995)

as they all depict a very similar milieu. They share the theme of struggling, unemployed,

young working-class men of ethnic minority backgrounds who have very little or no

patriarchal guidance in their lives. But La Haine differs from films like Lee’s or

Singleton’s (Boyz ‘N the Hood, 1991) as it has a much lower circulation of firearms and it

is the police rather than other youths who are the main enemies. There are no patriarchal

role models offered in La Haine. In fact, as rightly pointed out by Vincendeau (p.316

2000), this is where La Haine shares much in common with beur films. In La Thé au

harem d’Archeméde (1985) fathers are either pitiable wrecks, psychotics (De bruit et de

fureur, 1988) or just not there.

One thing that links Kassovitz’s neorealist and American influences is the auteur director.

La Haine feels highly personal to its maker through its stylised camerawork (stock,

lenses, take length, focus etc), edit patterns (quick cut- a lot like a modern music video

and Kassovitz had experience of directing rap videos), use of music and an overwhelming

amount of filmic references. At the beginning of the film we see a blue and white globe

burst into flames as a petrol bomb is thrown at it (the only instance of colour in the film).

The globe image then reappears in a billboard advertisement with the slogan “The World

Is Yours” (Scarface, 1983). Saïd promptly alters the lettering with a spray can to: “The

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World Is Ours” and this becomes one of the film’s most vivid anti-globalist/capitalist

statements. In a reference to himself and other auteur directors like Hitchcock, Kassovitz

also plays a cameo role as a skinhead. White-Jewish character Vinz, who also has a

shaven head, begins to look similar to Kassovitz (also Jewish) in this role, possibly

denoting that Vinz’s character is based on Kassovitz himself. Robert Kassovitz, his father,

plays an art-gallery owner which the three youths attempt to destroy, possibly signalling

an anti-art movie statement from Kassovitz. The film’s producer also plays a taxi-driver

and Vinz’s renders an impressive Travis Bickle performance in his bathroom mirror,

Kassovitz raising an eyebrow to Scorsese once again.

Often La Haine goes against or ignores some of the “rules” of the neorealists. During Cut

Killer’s mix of rap and Edith Piaf, the camera soars up into the skyline and glides

alongside the roof tops of the concrete estate tower blocks. This is evidently done with a

helicopter or the like. It works to show the inhabitants of the housing estate

expressionistically as like tiny specks in a deserted and barren (yet oddly beautiful)

concrete environment. Such work is more akin to the wide shot of the uninhabited desert

plains in a Western or the Antarctic in a documentary. It is a far too flamboyant (and

expensive) shot to have been influenced by the “realistic” and low-budget neorealist

movement. La Haine also makes good use of a long lens to cut out dead ground between

the viewer and distant objects so that they appear much closer, again something attributed

to many Westerns and war films.

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Depth of focus is also experimented with at the start of the film when the camera rises

from behind Saïd’s head to a blur, which is then focus-revealed to be a line of CDS riot

police. Most traditional neorealist films are shot in fixed deep focus constantly so not to

draw particular attention or bias to any one object. Another lens “trick” is utilised when

the narrative moves to Paris. As the youths stand on a balcony, with their backs to the

Eiffel Tower, the camera completes a “compressed zoom” seen in Hitchcock’s Vertigo

(1958). The effect is highly unnerving and reinforces the alien surroundings the group are

in. This would be far too melodramatic and “jazzy” to be borrowed from any traditional

neorealist director. Further lens distortion can be seen when Vinz points his hand in a

blurry gun shape towards a convex camera lens. At the time he is dreaming about

shooting a police officer. Dreams would rarely be shown or implied in a traditional

neorealist film as they are too far drawn from “reality”. The long take, a traditional

neorealist tendency, is often hailed as a marker for realism in La Haine (p.26, Stafford,

2000). I think it is more suited as an expressionistic device that helps the narrative to

build a commentary on youth in the banlieue. Rightly, Bourguignon and Tobin (p.27,

Stafford) refer to La Haine not as “realistic”, but as a “contemporary fairy tale”.

I agree with Bourguignon and Tobin that overall La Haine is more metaphorical, a fairy

tale, than literal realism. This can be seen by the way that the film deals with racism. The

film has faced accusations from Anglo-American critics (Alexander 1995; Tarr 1997) that

it “sweeps racism under the carpet” (p. 321, Vincendeau, 2000). I feel that such critics

have failed to notice the subtleties of La Haine, due to being used to “hardcore” hood

films like Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Also confused is where Lee’s films concentrate on

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raw racial conflict, La Haine focuses more on the common struggle of mixed-ethnicity

groups against the police and bourgeois society. Lee’s films show harsh divides between

the ethnic groups, La Haine shows friendship between three youths of different

nationalities. Such critics should realise that this is not because Kassovitz was ignorant of

racial divides in le banlieue, but because most of la banlieue is mixed-ethnicity. La Haine

tackles racism by targeting the way in which the people as a whole are treated in La Nöe.

When a media reporter, above a playground where Vinz, Saïd and Hubert sit, asks if they

vandalised during the riot, Saïd replies “We look like looters lady?” Hubert follows with

“This is not Thoiry!” Hubert is referring to the popular French “drive-in zoo” and is

stressing how the people in the La Nöe often feel victimised and watched like animals by

the media and government.

These arguments are often raised when discussing how realistic La Haine is in

representing in expressing the trends and concerns of modern French youth culture.

Critics often question whether La Haine is ‘authentic’. We often hear the critic’s or

theorist’s argument, but we lack academic discussion from somebody who originates

from les banlieues; surely the best judge of them all. An in-depth study has been collated

by Tony Chafer in Multicultural France, Working Papers on contemporary France

(1997), there are government banlieue studies and even Vincendeau “visited” La Nöe for

her study quoted in this essay, but one always has the feeling that these are “second hand”

sources of information when discussing the “authenticity” of La Haine. Sadly, there are

only brief comments recorded from members of les banlieues and La Nöe, who point out

one-off problems such as “why did Vinz give Hubert the gun?” (p. 83, Stafford, 2000).

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Even Kassovitz came from a bourgeois background (his father a feature director) and

Koundé, Taghmaoui and Cassel are not directly from les banlieues. However what

separates Kassovitz et al from Chafer, Vincendeau, the government et al is that they

evidently had some actual every-day contact with cités at some time and they are young.

Even though they were not raised in les banlieues, they manage to show comprehensive

knowledge. I am not from les banlieues myself, so I could not say how particularly

“realistic” the film is to French banlieue youth. But I did grow up in a working-class

family in an inner-London council estate (the English equivalent to a Parisian cité?) so I

can appreciate the “authenticity” in Kassovitz’s representation of young working-class

males and the hardships they face in modern society.

Overall, the cinematography in La Haine is highly stylised, but done so without drawing

attention to its devices, registering it as exciting, not ostentatious. As noted before, most

of the methods used in La Haine would not be seen in any one particular film. La Haine

is a definite “genre hybrid” which expresses trends and concerns of contemporary

(European) youth culture through a variety of different methods drawn from a range of

sources, both American and European. It takes documentary style, mostly unknown

actors and use of colloquial language from traditional neorealist films. A film that

immediately springs to mind is De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, for its use of unknown actors

and focus on working-class families and environments. La Haine also shows plenty of

interest in eighties American directors, especially from its camera styles and its

(sub)urban topic. The film also noticeably draws from film noir and the French “polizei”

with its vivid violence and social commentary on the police force. As for hybrids, La

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Haine likens to Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1965), memorably for its use of

documentary riot footage at the end of the film (La Haine uses documentary footage in its

beginning credit sequence) and oddly, its impressive use of rooftops. One can picture the

Ali La Pointe and Djafar largely making use of such territory, likening them to the youths

who hang out on the rooftops of La Nöe in La Haine. It is somewhere they can call their

own, where they can remain out of the eye of the media, police, government and other

“tourists”, and sense “The World Is Ours”.

Do La Haine’s visual and oral sophistication, its spectacular pleasures, undercut its
‘authenticity’ as has been suggested? I would reply that its spectacularization
of the topic, although problematic, indicates a shrewd understanding of the
social situation evoked in the film. (p.318, Vincendeau, 2000)

Vincendeau praises the film, but later does admit she fell for La Nöe like a “tourist”. How

fitting is Hubert’s “Thoiry theory” that most outsiders treat les banlieues like a safari. In

La Nöe, Vincendeau was hailed with stones, bottles and insults, forcing her “to make a

quick exit”. Surely that is what she deserved, as interfering with and taking photographs

of ordinary peoples’ squalid living arrangements; she appears just like the insulted TV

reporter in La Haine. I would not be surprised if somebody raised their fist at her with the

advice to “Quit snooping in the hood fuckface! Stop Taping”.

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