La Haine: 25th Anniversary Limited Edition Blu-ray Review
In a suburb of Paris, it’s the day after a riot. As an Arab boy lies in a critical condition, the atmosphere is tense for friends Vinz (Vincent Cassel), a white Jew, Hubert (Hubert Koundé) who is Black, and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), who is of Arab descent.
As Keith Reader points out in an essay originally from Sight & Sound in 1995 and which is reprinted in this edition’s booklet, to the French “banlieue” carries quite a different connotation to that which “suburbia” would have to the English. Instead of well-heeled middle-classness (with more than a hint of complacency) you have the areas where society fractures – the sink estates populated by the underclass, the areas where you don’t go out alone after dark, and where you have no business going to as a visitor. La Haine (Hate) may seem schematic at first in having its three lead characters from three different ethnic groups, but it’s quite clear that they are equally “other”, especially to the white skinheads they meet more than once. Every so often director Kassovitz cuts to a time caption. There’s a ticking in the background. A clock. Or a bomb about to go off.
The central image of the film is of a man falling from a high building and saying “Okay so far” because he has yet to hit the ground. It’s not the fall that kills but the landing. You could say the same about La Haine. When real riots broke out in France, ten years after this film was made, it seemed uncannily prescient.
La Haine takes place in less than twenty-four hours, during which the three take a trip to the city centre and miss the train home. The film has little plot as such: most of the time, we get to know our three central characters. Vinz operates on a hair-trigger, his violent temper frequently landing him in trouble. Hubert, a boxer, is far calmer. Saïd is somewhere in between: disrespectful but watching hopelessly as events around him spiral out of control. There’s not much actual on-screen violence, but it’s saturated by the threat of it. While it’s frequently very funny, there’s something much darker below the surface. When it finally erupts, it’s genuinely shocking, with an ending that carries a massive jolt even if you’re expecting it. I still remember my first viewing, at a press screening in mid 1995 in London: I walked around in a daze for the rest of the evening. Watched again on DVD and now on Blu-ray, La Haine has lost none of its power.
This was Mathieu Kassovitz’s second feature film (I haven’t seen his first, Métisse, also known as Café au Lait) and it’s noticeable how much in command of his medium he is, and how confident in his use of the camera. The prevailing visual cliché for “gritty social realist” would have been grainy, hand-held visuals – nowadays, grungy hand-held digital video. But Kassovitz’s camerawork is never random – it’s always in just the right place. The use of black and white (actually 35mm colour negative printed on a high-contrast monochrome film stock normally used for soundtracks) works perfectly. It gives the film a sharp, hard edge and avoids the trap of prettifying the subject matter, which could have happened were the film shown in colour. That’s not to say that Pierre Aïm’s photography doesn’t have a beauty of its own - look at Hubert’s opening scene in a boxing ring, his torso gleaming with sweat, an image worthy of Bruce Weber.
Kassovitz’s subsequent films have never had the impact of La Haine and it’s questionable if they ever will. Angry, committed, state-of-the-Zeitgeist films burning with an urgency to speak about something vital don’t come along that often. The obvious predecessor is Do the Right Thing but there’s more than a little of Mean Streets in this film’s DNA. Kassovitz pays his respects to Scorsese early on, when Vinz quotes a certain famous monologue from Taxi Driver. As for Kassovitz’s later work, Assassin(s) (1997) sank without trace. The Crimson Rivers (Les rivières pourpres) (2000), was a thriller that became a huge hit in France but which bombed everywhere else, and 2003’s Gothika was a descent into Hollywood hackery. He has done some notable work as an actor, in Munich and Amélie amongst others, and has a small role as “Young Skinhead” in La Haine. All three lead actors, unknowns at the time, give fine performances and have gone on to further acting careers. It is a very male affair, with little space for the few female characters – though their story would be a different film, one which should be made if it hasn’t been already.
Despite the stumbling-blocks of being not just subtitled but also in black and white, La Haine crossed over to a wider audience more than is usual for foreign-language films. It’s a key film of the 1990s and except in the usual aspects (no internet or smartphones), hasn’t dated one iota.
La Haine’s 25th anniversary edition is a two-disc release from the BFI, both discs encoded for Region B only. The film, then and now, has a 15 certificate. At the time of writing, the three short films do not appear on the BBFC database. There have been several previous editions, some of them having been reviewed by The Digital Fix team, including a three-disc Ultimate DVD edition here. Other than that third disc (a soundtrack CD), the extras from that set have been transferred to this new edition, with some significant additions.
The film is transferred in its intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1, from a 4K restoration scanned from the original negative. Black and white shot on actual black and white 35mm film stock had become a rarity by 1995. Schindler’s List and Ed Wood had been exceptions, but generally new black and white films at the time were shot on colour stock and printed or post-produced into monochrome, which these days could just as easily be done digitally rather than via film. One reason for doing this was that a colour version could be produced for markets which might reject a black and white film, though I’m not aware that that has been done for La Haine. (That said, black and white films are still being shot on black and white film stock: The Lighthouse and The Painted Bird are two examples). The BFI’s transfer conveys the hard, sharp clarity the film’s images always have had, and the grain is natural and filmlike. The use of newsreel footage at the beginning is of lower quality, but that’s no doubt due to the source.
La Haine was released in cinemas with a Dolby Digital SR soundtrack, rendered here as DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM 2.0. Other than the LPCM being mixed slightly louder, there’s not much to choose between them. There is considerable use of direction sound to quite startling effect at times. The subwoofer doesn’t get a lot of use but certainly adds a lot to the occasional gunshots, not to mention the bassline of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Burnin’ and Lootin’” – the only non-diegetic music track in the entire film - which plays over the opening credits. English subtitles are optional, but unless you are very fluent in French, you’re not likely to want to do without them. Even native speakers find the film’s pervasive street slang hard going. Some original English subtitle tracks were Americanised, but here, the currency spent are (pre-Euro) francs rather than dollars and a cartoon figure is Asterix and not Snoopy.
The extras begin with a commentary by Mathieu Kassovitz, recorded in 2004. Kassovitz speaks in fluent if inevitably accented English throughout the film, which he is clearly very proud of. It’s a very interesting talk, not least for pointing out things you wouldn’t otherwise notice, such as the sound deliberately collapsing into centre-channel-only mono for much of the Parisian sequence.
The remaining extras on the first disc are new to this release. “Redefining Rebellion” (4:47) is a short video essay by Kaleem Aftab which serves as an introduction to the film. Next up is Riz Ahmed (13:54), recorded in 2020 for the BFI’s Screen Epiphany series, in which he talks about how he discovered the film – which he hadn’t known anything about at the time – as a teenager on a late-night television broadcast. It redefined his ideas of what cinema could do – and opened him up to cinema in other languages than English. He also talks about how La Haine influenced his own film Mogul Mowgli, which he co-wrote as well as starred in.
Next, Kassovitz is interviewed via Zoom (or similar) by Kaleem Aftab. Inevitably rather older now than when he made the film, and no longer in that social background, Kassovitz says La Haine could not be made today, but as the social conditions are still with us – see the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in 2020 – a film on the subject certainly could be.
Finally on the first disc is the 25th anniversary trailer (1:37).
The second disc is divided into two sections. The first comprises three early short films by Kassovitz. Fierrot le pou (7:35) was made in 1990. The title is an obvious play on Godard’s film Pierrot le fou, though the subtitle translates it as As Proud as a Louse. This was shot in 16mm black and white on a wind-up Bolex, with Kassovitz using his savings to make the film, and by calling in favours. Kassovitz plays the lead role, as a gawky young man throwing hoops in a gym. A young Black girl (Fabienne Labonne) comes in – and she’s much better at basketball than he is, for all his attempts to impress her. In Cauchemar blanc (10:31), four white men plan an attack on an Arab man but have the tables turned on them. Also shot in black and white, this has some notable plot similarities to La Haine. Finally, Assassins (12:17) moves into colour as one hitman trains another. This film, made in 1992, was expanded into the feature Assassin(s) in 1997.
The remaining extras have been seen before. “10 Years of La Haine” (83:30) is an admirably detailed look at the making of the film and its impact, with interviews with most of the key personnel. Of the cast, Vincent Cassel is now almost unrecognisable as Vinz and Saïd Taghmaoui is absent. The interviews are, like the film extracts, in black and white, though television footage of riots and the film’s reception at Cannes are in colour. Next up is casting and rehearsal footage (18:39), “Anatomy of a Scene” (6:37), in this case a particularly complex one involving stuntwork and behind-the-scenes material (5:53) including interviews with Kassovitz and cast members.
Finally on the disc are some deleted and extended scenes (17:21). You have the option of watching some of them with afterwords by Kassovitz (10:11). These are in colour, so does give you the opportunity to see how the film might have looked that way. The extras end with two short trailers (0:29 and 0:37).
With this limited edition (5000 copies only), is an eighty-page booklet. After Kassovitz’s one-page director’s statement from 1995, this begins with an essay (spoiler alert) "From La Haine to Les Misérables: Return to the Banlieue", by Ginette Vincendeau, linking this film to another “banlieue” film from nearly a quarter-of-a-century later, one almost as well celebrated, though centring on policemen rather than the three youths of La Haine. Vincendeau does take Kassovitz to task for more or less excluding women from his film, his response seeming to indicate that their presence would only bring in love stories or other ways of softening the film, and that’s a shortcoming she finds in the later film, also directed by a man (Ladj Ly). But La Haine is clearly still a film which speaks to generations of youngsters and is still relevant.
Following his Zoom interview with Kassovitz, Kaleem Aftab continues in text form, this time reprinted from the May 2020 Sight & Sound. Inevitably there’s a lot of overlap with the on-disc interview. From the same issue of Sight & Sound is a piece by Steph Green on the music heard in the film, which is mostly hip-hop, along with songs by Bob Marley (as mentioned above) and Edith Piaf. After this is Keith Reader’s “After the Riot”, from the November 1995 Sight & Sound. In “Going Round the Houses”, Kaleem Aftab discusses the social backgrounds of the three protagonists, pointing out connections based in shared experience with the use of black and white de-emphasising, though not removing, their racial differences.
After a credits listing, the book reprints Chris Darke’s original Sight & Sound review from the November 1995 issue, interviews with Kassovitz, the three lead actors and producer Christophe Rossignon, credits and notes on the extras and on the transfer, and stills.
There will be only 5,000 La Haine: 25th Anniversary Limited Edition Blu-ray copies made available from November 23, with simultaneous release on BFI player, iTunes and Amazon Prime.