La Haine: jusqu’ici tout va bien?

  • Themes: Culture

The 1995 breakthrough film about life in the troubled banlieues still holds up a mirror to France in 2023.

Still from La Haine.
Still from La Haine. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The exceptionally successful French film La Haine, by Mathieu Kassovitz, is 28 years old. And yet, as we watch footage of arson attacks and looting in the wake of the shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk by a police officer in Nanterre, outside Paris, it feels as though Kassovitz’s movie, charting a day and night in the life of three aimless young men from a deprived Parisian suburb, could have been made today.

Early on in La Haine, a Molotov cocktail is hurled at planet Earth, which encapsulates how the film landed on its release in 1995. The impact was explosive, enormous. The director Mathieu Kassovitz, only 27 years old, was awarded the Best Director prize at the Cannes Festival, where the film received a standing ovation. The public was also enthusiastic: La Haine opened at number one at the French box office and remained there for four weeks. The critical response was unanimously positive, a rare occurrence. The film was hailed as a revelation — a brave, authentic, pioneering account of a difficult social reality often ignored by mainstream French cinema.

One strongly dissenting voice amid the chorus of approval was that of the French police, who perceived La Haine as a hatchet job. At the Cannes Festival officers turned their backs on Kassovitz and his team as they climbed the steps of the Palais des Festivals. Whether one considers the film’s portrayal of the police to be excessively one-sided or not, it is certainly true that Kassovitz highlights the issue of police violence against the young men who live in the more deprived suburbs — les banlieues — of French cities. This is a protest film. Kassovitz was engaged in another project when he decided instead to make La Haine as a response to a 1993 news story, the killing of Makomé M’Bowole, a 17-year-old Zairian immigrant, in a Parisian police station; a detective interrogating him accidentally shot the boy in the head. Riots and demonstrations followed this tragic bavure — the word used for an excessive use of force by the police.

These riots and demonstrations feature in the documentary footage that opens the film, to the tune of Bob Marley’s Burnin’ And Lootin’. This tethers La Haine, which is a work of fiction, in its contemporary social and political reality. We first meet the central trio of the film — Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), Vinz (Vincent Cassel), and Hubert (Hubert Koundé) — in the aftermath of a police beating on their estate outside Paris. The victim, Abdel, lies in hospital in a coma, and it is uncertain whether he will live or die.

For all that it is anchored in reality, La Haine is not devoid of artifice. For one thing it is in black-and-white. This has a focusing effect: it suggests a paring-down to essentials, but it is also a way of hallmarking the film as a work of art rather than a docu-drama. Like many French filmmakers, Kassovitz grew up on a diet of American cinema and incorporated it into his work. The film, which references Scarface and Taxi Driver, positions itself as a neo-film noir, with a tightly-wound tragic mechanism at its core. La Haine opens with a joke about a man falling out of the window of a fifty-floor building, and telling himself, as he passes each floor on the way down, ‘so far, so good’. What really matters, we are told, isn’t the fall, it’s how you land. There is also a ticking clock, and a loaded gun, which is lost and then found. The black-and-white reality of the film, with its naturalistic takes of characters talking and walking through the maze-like streets of their estate and of central Paris, is also reminiscent of French Nouvelle Vague films, such as François Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960), and before that, of the poetic realism of 1930s cinema, of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné. Though tense and hard-hitting, the film is imbued with a surreal, dream-like, absurdist quality. With its cast of oddballs, its unexpected encounters, its quirkiness, it also fits, perhaps unexpectedly, very neatly alongside another French film, the nostalgic, whimsical Parisian phantasmagory of Amélie (2001) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet — in which, incidentally, the love interest is played by none other than Mathieu Kassovitz.

But watching the film again today through the prism of the ongoing riots, a few observations come to mind. Some aspects of life in the deprived banlieues that Kassovitz identified in 1995 are still true today. Social alienation is one. In terms of its sense of place La Haine is a film of two halves. There’s the suburban estate, ‘la cité’ where Saïd, Vinz and Hubert live a marginalised life, hanging out, as though waiting for Godot, often alone in empty playgrounds and shopping centres and other liminal spaces. And there is central Paris, the bastion of the bourgeoisie, shot in oppressively close frames, where the boys, having missed their last train home, spend a night wandering the streets, shut out of everything. As Saïd puts it: ‘On est enfermés dehors’: ‘We’re locked in. On the outside.’ After La Haine came more real-life riots in France, notably in 2005 in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, after two young men running away from the police hid inside an electrical substation and died of electrocution. Today, the sense of grievance among the marginalised is the same, but it’s heightened by the generalised use of smartphones and social media, not yet part of everyday life when La Haine was made.

La Haine also pre-dates the Black Lives Matter movement and critical race theory. It is not primarily a film about racism. Nor does it feature identity politics. Hubert who is Black, Saïd who is Arab, and Vinz who is Jewish each represent a different personality type. Together they are emblematic of all marginalised people in France, embodying the celebratory phrase ‘black-blanc-beur’ (black-white-Arab) coined in the 1990s as a riposte to the Republican motto ‘bleu-blanc-rouge’, to highlight France’s new multicultural, multi-ethnic identity.

The current unrest arising from the banlieues is expressive of some of the problems Kassovitz depicted in La Haine: the notable absence of fathers in family environments and the unmoored existence of many children in les quartiers (‘the neighbourhoods,’ which has also come to refer primarily to impoverished, marginalised areas); and the prevalence in those young people’s lives of a parallel economy involving drug dealing and other antisocial behaviour. La Haine also gestures towards the broader hinterland of a cultural fragmentation of French society; a loss of common ground, most importantly in terms of citizenship, schooling and laïcité, the French secular system which protects religious freedom while keeping religion out of public affairs. La Haine sounded the alarm, but 28 years later, a government capable of reversing social breakdown in France, to find ways of healing fragmentation, is yet to come.


Muriel Zagha