If a French person asks you what your favourite French movie is, don’t say Amélie. Not only is it an obvious choice, but it’s infamous in France for one of the most idealistic portrayals of Paris ever – it’s depicted as a wonderful, almost otherworldly place where everything’s beautiful and romantic and there are no problems ever.
If you want a movie that gives a more honest portrayal of the City of Lights, then look no further than La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz’s visceral drama set in the banlieues – the run-down, problem-filled suburbs – of Paris.
After a young black teenager called Abdel is beaten into a coma by the police, riots erupt over Paris, during the course of which an officer loses his gun. It’s found by Vinz (Vincent Cassel), a young Jewish man, who vows that if Abdel dies he’ll use the gun to kill a cop and take his revenge. What follows is 19 hours in the lives of Vinz and his two friends, Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) as the wander aimlessly through the banlieue, coming into contact with a wide array of characters and avoiding the watchful eyes police, many of whom are depicted as racist and overtly corrupt.
The view of La Haine as an “anti-police film” didn’t go down well with the French authorities – many of the French security officers at Cannes turned their backs to the director at the end of the film’s first screening. But of course, within all great fiction is a kernel of truth – France was suffering from a repeated series of real-life riots at the time, and deaths among members of the banlieue (accidental or otherwise) were not uncommon.
In all aspects, Mathieu Kassovtiz is blisteringly unflattering in his portrayal of Paris and its suburbs. Shot totally in black and white, the riot-torn alleyways and the grey, concrete buildings of the suburbs seem all the uglier, the image not helped by the coverings of graffiti which, ironically, give the inhabitants a form of release; a way to vent their spleens of otherwise inexpressable anger. Even the streets of the city itself seem somehow cold and uninviting. It’s a soul-destroying environment, one that makes you appreciate how far down the social ladder the three protagonists find themselves.
The trio are fascinating and well-developed characters, too, and brought to life by dazzling performances from the three leads. Vinz is nothing short of psychotic, quoting Travis Bickle into his bathroom mirror and flying into a rage at the slightest provocation. Saïd is the joker of the group, constantly trying to defuse the tension with one liners and dirty poetry, whilst Hubert is the stoic conscience of the group, dismayed at the dead-end prospects his life in the banlieue holds. They’re not heroes, but neither are they villains; they’re simply ordinary young men trying (not always successfully) to deal with the pretty crappy hand they’ve been dealt.
At the start of the film, Hubert tells the story of a man who falls from a 50-storey building. To reassure himself, he repeats the mantra “so far, so good”, knowing full well that it’s the landing, not the fall, which will kill him. Kassovitz has written a script that’s short, sharp and shocking, filled with tense encounters that will have you holding your breath for minutes on end, wondering whether this fall will continue or be punctuated by the sound of the body hitting the kerb.
La Haine paints a Paris that very few outside of France will have seen or even be aware of, but it’s a picture that demands to be observed and thought about for days on end. The subtitling may be a little off in places (I’ve never heard anyone describe something as “killing” before), but this is a film that loses nothing in translation. Even after almost two decades, with the memories of the London riots still present in the minds of many, La Haine remains a strikingly relevant masterpiece of modern cinema.