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La Haine

The Agitational Picaresque


An agitational piece of picaresque, La Haine doesn’t so much have a story to tell as a piece of advice to offer. However, it offers it without the lucidity of an argument, but instead with the force of a physical gesture. If we anthropomorphize film for a moment, La Haine is a push and a shove; not a lecture and not a discussion.  It is in this anthropomorphic sense that the film resembles a work often name checked in reference to it: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Both Mathieu Kassovitz and Lee’s films create over a twenty four hour period time bomb narratives. Here major multi-ethnic cities are ready to explode: New York in Lee’s case; Paris here. Yet while Lee’s film fixes on a district of the city; Kassovitz goes binary. The first part of the film takes place in the banlieues (in the outlying housing estates), where the second section takes the characters into the city as one of the three friends looks to retrieve some money he is owed. Now in this sense of location specificity, as opposed to location drift, Lee’s film is strictly speaking implosive, whilst Kassovitz’s might better be termed explosive. What we want to do here is explore how, through the agitational picaresque, La Haine arrives at the explosively political.

Opening on footage from news events, La Haine locates itself still further in the documentative by using monochrome over colour. Obviously any film, post, say, 1966 that uses black and white is no longer a work of oblivious realism, but more a piece of formal realism, a paradoxical term perhaps yet a useful one when we think of numerous films that have adopted monochrome in the last forty five years: from The Last Picture Show to Raging Bull, from Schindler’s List to Manhattan. Not all the films have held exclusively to the black and white they utilise: Scorsese uses colour for the home movie footage; Spielberg for the little girl in the red dress and for the closing sequence of the survivors. However there have been other directors who have more obviously played up the formalism of their colour usage within monochrome; including Francis Coppola with Rumblefish and also more recently Tetro. Monochrome signifies realism, but also calls it into question, especially when offered with dashes of colour or, like Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Shadows and Fog, incorporates the chiaroscuro effects of German Expressionism.

It is as if though Kassovitz was aware that he was following in form and content Lee’s earlier colourist pressure cooker and wanted to find a counter aesthetic: instead of summer heat and vibrant colour; a wintry temperature and black and white. However there is another major difference between the two films and this is where Lee’s film is theatrical; Kassovitz’s is cinematic. One isn’t offering a value judgement here; more attempting to say that Lee’s film wants a certain distanciation that leaves the film not so much a state of the nation piece of provocation, but a work of race deliberation. Lee’s film ends on two quotes: one from Martin Luther King and another from Malcolm X. It is as if Lee is asking how should one be black; how should one live, fight and progress as a black man? It as though he is echoing Christopher Lasch’s comments in The Culture of Narcissism where he quoted Kenneth B. Clarke saying, “black children or any other group of children can’t develop pride by just saying they have it, by singing a song about it, or by saying I’m black and beautiful…” “Racial pride comes from “demonstrable achievement”.” Lee was interested in what it meant to be black, confronted with Italian-American aspiration in its midst, and how best to assert a black identity. His film possesses a dialectical theatrical dimension, evident in the numerous argumentative exchanges between the characters that still nevertheless function as arguments. Lee isn’t averse to push and shove aesthetics of his own, but he is also interested in people defending positions on the assumption that another is listening and likely to reply: never more evidently so than in a sequence between the son, Pino, of the Pizzeria owner, and Spike Lee’s character Mookie. La Haine might be no less interested in central conflicts, in characters constantly arguing with each other, but the emphasis isn’t on dialectical discussion but much more on admonishment, with the characters lecturing each other on how to behave, how to act, never more evident than in the scene where the three leading characters leave the flat of a drug dealer in Paris. It is, perhaps, subsequently, a film about class rather than about race: a film that addresses hectoring assumption about appropriate behaviour, rather than the oppositional relationships of two ethnic groups.

In La Haine, though the three main characters come from different ethnic backgrounds (Jewish Vince, Arabic Said, and black Hubert), Kassovitz is interested not especially in the assertion of ethnic identity, but the geography of class. Here is a black and white world socio-culturally rather than ethnically, and while the director claims in interviews that he understands as a Jewish person the ethnic slights in French society, Kassovitz, as the son of a director, and as a filmmaker who made La Haine in his twenties, would be on the other side of the social divide from his characters. The three leading figures here, then, are less products of an ethnic specificity than a social milieu, evident during one scene halfway through the film where they end up at an art gallery. As they leave after making a scene, a person at the gallery comments on the problem in the suburbs. The scene plays out as an example of the boys’ disenfranchisement on more levels than one. These are the de-skilled not only on the educational level, but socially also, and though in some ways the scene works as an example of bourgeois pretension against proletariat directness, it also emphasises the boys’ boorishness in a moment where two forms of the political collide. This is class meeting feminism in the moment where Said (Said Taghmaoui)  says he likes one of the girls on the other side of the gallery, and Hubert (Hubert Kunde) goes and tells her about Said’s interest. However, when Said and Vince (Vincent Cassel) go over as well, their libidinous needs get in the way of their social skills, and the girls understandably aren’t interested.

Kassovitz plays the scene as an example of high pretension in the centre of Paris, but also shows up the social ineptitude of the lads at the gallery. It is an interesting moment in a film where it manages simultaneously to be very crude but not unambiguous: it manages to create a clumsily obvious situation of class conflict, but doesn’t arrive so readily at a position on that conflict. The boys turn up at the gallery without an invite and partake in the hospitality even though it would seem clear that nobody at the gallery invited them, and they are hardly retiring when they enter the environment. With especially Vince’s boorish behaviour, who wouldn’t want to eject them from the gallery, yet it is only when it looks like they are harassing the girls that others insist they should calm down. It is as though however the middle-classes can’t quite countenance class dismissal unless another area of political thought imposes itself upon it: namely feminism and the rights of women. However, where one might assume that the people at the gallery will feel justified in asking them to leave, is their response quite ours? As the three of them exit, they undeniably have made a scene, but though Kassovitz isn’t subtle, there is ambiguity of response in that we can see the boys’ overreaction, but can we not also see the boys are making assumptions not so much about the people but about the society? While they might be overreacting given the situation, one might wonder whether they are overreacting in relation to a broader social sphere that places them as people from the suburbs – exactly the comment made by the gallery owner after they leave.

Kassovitz could have grossly exaggerated this scene and arrived at dramatic effectiveness within sociological oversimplification. He could have offered it as the decent poor coming up against the indecent rich, but what he does is combine several cinematic clichés and dilutes the obviousness through their combination. What are these clichés? First, we have the pretentious against the down to earth; the poor against the rich, the city-centred against the peripheral; the white against the ethnic. Structural categories all; ripe for binary opposition as cliché. Yet La Haine collapses the binaries instead of exacerbating them. A director more interested in unproblemitizing conflict would leave them intact, all the better to play up the audience’s righteousness. But Kassovitz first of all gives us no sense that those at the gallery are rich; secondly that their behaviour is not especially pretentious, and thirdly we may notice the girl Said likes could well be of North African extraction also. This is not so much binary opposition as binary collision; one that collapses the dichotomies into permeating tensions. Here is a world of conflict where many of the conflicts are within the boys themselves; where when they enter into a bourgeois situation they might not immediately be rejected; but they will sense a non-acceptance by virtue of their status as ethnic and their place as outsiders in the very literal sense of belonging on the Paris periphery. Yet while Kassovitz emphasises their disenfranchisement, he doesn’t assume that out of this loss they are entitled to an identificatory gain as a given: they behave in the art gallery in a manner that doesn’t only alienate them from society, but also almost alienates them from the viewer who is aligned with them by virtue of the filmmakers’ focus. We do not expect that after they leave we will remain with the gallery habitués, but that Kassovitz stays with the latter momentarily after the boys have left, allows us in this moment to accept while we will follows the lads, we aren’t always in sympathy with their actions.

The other key moment of potential set-piece cliché consists of Hubert and Said’s arrest. After Said tries to retrieve money from a drug dealing buddy, their shenanigans trying to get into the up-market apartment block leads the neighbours to the call police and to the lads’ arrest as they exit the building. Vince manages to escape, but Said and Hubert are taken in for questioning. During their interrogation scene which consists of almost no questioning and plenty of abuse, the two cops offering it are at the simultaneously offering advice to a trainee in attendance. Much of the scene is filmed in a medium long shot, as far away as the camera can get in the confined space that Hubert and Said happen be in, and shot from behind the trainee cop looking on. Afterwards the film moves into close-up, but cuts back and forth between the two cops abusing Said and Hubert, and the trainee cop who at one moment half shakes his head in a hint of moral aversion. Interestingly though the trainee cop seems Caucasian, one of the other cops looks like he might be of North African or Middle-eastern extraction. As he insults the pair of them, talking of Hubert’s ancestry where his people were supposedly good at using their feet in a possible reference to their slave past, and calls Said an Arab, Kassovitz offers us a scene of moral certitude on the one hand, and of curious ambivalence on the other. Would a more assertively didactic filmmaker have made the cops white and the on-looking trainee ethnic, or a more dialectical one more obviously acknowledging the absurdity of an Arabic looking cop insulting another person who looks not unlike he does? In this sense, Kassovitz would seem a subtler filmmaker than Lee, despite the un-subtlety of his narrative set-ups.

Both the scene in the gallery and the scene in the cop station are what we can call affirmation situations: scenes the director offers to allow the viewer a comfortably ensconced narrative place without doubting their own moral well-being in the scene. It is often one where a bully picks on an innocent; a troublemaker takes on more than he realises; the working class are patronised by the bourgeois, the apparently dumb are condescended to by the supposedly more intelligent. Anything from Warren Beatty ordering a glass of milk in The Parallax View and being treated as a weakling, to Will in Good Will Hunting receiving a history lecture from a college kid will suffice, but where Lee sets up such a scene dialectically and escapes the laziness of its assumptions, Kassovitz does so through internal contradiction. In Do the Right Thing, the scene when a character argues with the boss of the Pizzeria over why there aren’t black people up on the wall even though most of the customers are black, proves dialectical in that both the pizzeria owner and the person complaining get to state their position, just as throughout the rest of the film Lee allows for dialectical spats as characters argue their corner.

In the two scenes Kassovitz provides us with, though, they are neither readily affirmative, nor dialectically confrontational, but instead play with the internally contradictory; with what will demand from the viewer neither an easy play on cinematic cliché, nor an essentially theatrical dialogical exchange. Instead one sees the characters’ insecurities and bourgeois-social incompetence in the scene at the gallery, and we see that the film offers a racist cop scene with one of the cops looking ethnic also, while the most disgusted of the three is a white policeman. If Lee allows the viewer to implode with the awareness of conflictory positions; Kassovitz expects the viewer to explode with an awareness that injustices are being done, but that they can’t quite be explained away by categorical racial differences. In Lee’s film a district of New York implodes as the blacks cannot tolerate Italian Americans having so much say in what they believe to be their community; while in Kassovitz’s, part of the problem for the characters lies in trying to locate injustice beyond the situation that generates the crisis in the first place. One says Lee’s film offers the implosive partly because it is located so specifically in a district of New York, and the film shows the building tensions as an unmediated event specific to the community. La Haine is mediated by the police brutality that opens the film and the footage is utilised as documentary evidence and fictive narrativising: it sets in motion the characters’ resentment, and indeed critics have noticed that the whole film gives the impression of CCTV, of being shot not so much as a drama but as a document. As Adele Chapman says in a piece called ‘The Representation of the Banlieue in La Haine’: “the fact the film is shot in black and white adds a lot to its representation of the banlieue. It makes the film seem more gritty and real-life, like CCTV or documentary.” Yet ironically, in terms of form, the banlieue sequences are more elegant than the Paris ones. “I wanted [n the city] nothing but a tripod and handheld shots”, he says in an interview in Positif on the film, whereas “on the estate we had the full works, tracking shots and everything.” Nevertheless, Kassovitz’s overall aesthetic gives the impression of documentative immediacy, of a work that wants to say that Paris is burning.

However, though La Haine is a film of documentative (if formal) realism, and though the film creates within the characters traits that show them as other than hard done by, this isn’t at all the same as saying Kassovitz’s offers even-handedness. To anthropomorphize again, La Haine doesn’t shrug its shoulders; it asserts itself, but without knowing quite what that assertion means. This could be seen as a failing of the film, a result of a young filmmaker taking on a sociological complexity that he can’t possibly understand. Perhaps this is the case; but it is more useful to look at the film and see it reflecting energy currents that are searching for release. Intriguingly Kassovitz says in the Positif interview that actually he would have wanted all the scenes to be viewed through the most passive of the three characters in each scene; something he semi-achieves. What this allows for is the need to explode whilst containing it within the futility of that explosion. Frequently we notice Hubert calming Vinz down, asking him to have a sense of perspective rather than losing his temper, yet he cannot quite escape the implications of which he is a part; he can only try and rationalise his own frustrations. When Vinz points a gun at the drug dealer in the latter’s apartment, Hubert insists, “don’t take on the world. You’ve got the wrong build”. However, as in many scenes in the film, the hectoring tone of one character contains within it a moralising tone contained again by an asocial dimension: Hubert is yelling in the stairwell as they come down the stairs, and would clearly be exacerbating the neighbours’ fear and annoyance over these usurpers in an upmarket apartment block. Hubert’s behaviour is unlikely to have placated the neighbours but instead irritated them even more and so it is no surprise that the police are waiting as they come out of the building. It is as though the volatiliy of Vinz getting angry with the drug dealer is matched by the explosiveness of Hubert getting annoyed with Vinz. A character doesn’t so much calm another down, as find their own space for self-immolation.

This leads us to the last section of the film. In one moment Vinz shapes his hand like a gun and we see a security guard blown away by the gunshot, only for the scene of course to be shown as a fantasy sequence. Again Hubert gets annoyed with Vinz for pointing so provocatively at the cop, even though he is perhaps no less angry about the news they have all received. The person from the projects, who was in intensive care at the beginning of the film, dies in hospital, and the boys watch it on the news in a shopping mall. Not long afterwards they return home and Hubert sees Vinz being held by some cops we’ve witnessed earlier, with one in particular holding a gun to his head and mocking the would-be-heroism Vinz had shown the previous day. The film ends with the cop and Hubert pointing a gun in each other’s face as the camera moves in on Said between the two of them on the other side of the car they stand in front of. In voice-over we have a repeat of the opening statement: it’s not how you fall, it is how you land, as someone tries to reassure himself after he falls off a skyscraper. As La Haine offers this anecdote at the beginning of the film, so we have the film’s one literal blast of colour, as we watch the planet explode when an object hurtles towards it. In La Haine, Kassovitz  admits it couldn’t have been an implosive film perhaps because the suburbs aren’t his milieu. “I didn’t want to make a film just about a housing estate. I don’t come from that world, so there’s no way I can make a film exclusively set there.” If Lee finally wants to make a statement about black politics through the microcosm of one New York district; Kassovitz muses over the state of a nation that lets people get beaten to death in police custody and where there may be only a few miles between the banlieue and the city centre, but socially spaces that can’t easily be traversed. Near the end of the film, the three characters pass a huge advertisement saying the world is yours, a reference, Kassovitz admits, to Scarface, a film constantly referred to by kids on the housing estates not unlike the ones the characters are located in. Said changes it to the world is ours, but it seems the most tokenistic of gestures, an acknowledgement that defacing an advert will be as close as they will ever get to making that world their own.


©Tony McKibbin