La Haine: Ultimate Edition 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 Cassell), a white Jew, black Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Arab Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui).
As Keith Reader points out in the essay that comes with this DVD, 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 waiting 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 the space of 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 in this film, but it’s saturated by the threat of it. When it finally erupts, it’s genuinely shocking, with an ending that carries a massive jolt even if you’re expecting it. I 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, La Haine has lost none of its power.
This was Mathieu Kassovitz’s second feature film (I haven’t seen his first, Métisse aka 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 he ever will live up to this film. 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 Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing but there’s more than a little of Scorsese’s Mean Streets. 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, an expansion of a 1992 short film) sank without trace. Les rivières pourpres (2000, aka The Crimson Rivers), 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, most recently for Steven Spielberg in Munich 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.
Despite the stumbling-blocks of being not only subtitled but also in black and white, it crossed over to a wider audience than is usual for foreign-language films. Whether Kassovitz lives up to it or not, La Haine is a key film of the 1990s and hasn’t dated one iota.
La Haine has had a number of DVD editions in the UK. The first came from its cinema distributor, Tartan, which was anamorphic but otherwise was one reason why Tartan’s earlier DVDs had a bad reputation. In 2005 Optimum bought the rights and gave the film a limited tenth-anniversary cinema reissue as well as releasing a special edition on DVD, which was reviewed for this site by D.J. Nock here. (In the archive reviews section of DVD Times you will also find a review of a French release by Chris Lynch, here.) The 2005 edition is still available, but now Optimum have released an Ultimate Edition comprising three discs in a steel tin. For review I was supplied with checkdiscs for the additional material, so cannot comment further on the packaging. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only and has sixteen chapter stops.
The first disc is the same as the 10th Anniversary edition. La haine is transferred in its original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. This is an excellent transfer, capturing very well the hard, sharp clarity of the camerawork, and the grain looks natural and filmlike. The use of newsreel footage at the beginning is of lower quality, but that’s no doubt due to the source.
The soundtrack has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. This is a product of the digital era (rather than remixed from analogue) and is first-rate, with 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’” which plays over the opening credits. There is an alternative 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround) track, but it’s much less effective.
The English subtitles aren’t optional – though as they’re electronic I imagine some players or computers should be able to remove them. I can’t imagine many people wanting to do so unless they are very fluent in French. Apparently even native speakers find the film’s plethora of street slang hard going. These subtitles have been redone from the ones that accompanied the original cinema and DVD release. Primarily the new subtitles remove some egregious Americanisms: “dollars” and “dimes” for (pre-Euro) francs, “Snoopy” for “Asterix”, “Disneyland” for “Eurodisney”, and so on.
The extras begin with a commentary by Mathieu Kassovitz. This was specially recorded for the Optimum release. Kassovitz speaks in fluent if inevitably accented English thoughout 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.
Also on the first disc are two behind-the-scenes featurettes, which comprise one title (running 12:30) on the DVD but breaks into two parts, selectable separately from the menu. This scene includes the staging of a sequence involving some stuntwork and includes interviews with Kassovitz and cast members. These are rather strangely presented in 4:3 with thick black bars on all sides – in other words, a smaller 4:3 frame inside a larger one.
Like most contemporary black-and-white features, La Haine was actually filmed on colour film stock and printed in black and white. This is done for several reasons: the fact that colour stock has advanced beyond the sensitivity of true black and white film, and secondly producers have the option of releasing a colour version if they so choose. (This was done for some DVD releases of The Man Who Wasn’t There and John Boorman’s The General, for example.) Kassovitz was allowed to make the film this way because it was considered to be so uncommercial as it was (no stars, “depressing” subject matter, downbeat storyline) that black and white could hardly make it worse. The DVD includes some rushes in colour. As far as I know, apart from this footage, the film has never been shown anywhere in any other form than the intended monochrome, for which we should be grateful. The film, and especially its visuals, have such an impact that seeing these scenes in colour seems quite unnatural. These run 6:13 with a 15-second text introduction.
The extras on Disc One are completed by two short trailers for La Haine (0:28 and 0:37, both presented in 4:3) and trailers for four other Optimum releases: Amores Perros, Since Otar Left, Memories of Murder and A Thousand Months. Inside the case is a small brochure which includes Keith Reader’s “After the Riot” essay (reprinted from the November 1995 issue of Sight & Sound) which I refer to above. Also in the brochure are biographies of the three lead actors.
Disc Two features a documentary “Ten Years of La Haine, followed by audition and rehearsal footage (in black and white, from a video source) and out-takes (in colour). These are all authored as one long title, running 119:37 with sixteen chapter stops. However, the documentary ends at 83:28 and the programme continues directly with the beginning of the rehearsal footage. There is however a scene selection menu on the disc. As for the documentary itself, it’s 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 Cassell 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. The documentary is 16:9 anamorphic, with the TV clips windowboxed into 4:3.
The third disc is the soundtrack CD of both Hate and Café au Lait (the label uses the English-language titles). The tracklisting is as follows: 1. Burnin’ and Lootin’ (Bob Marley and the Wailers) 2. Funk Funk (Cameo) 3. Outstanding (The Gap Band) 4. The Beat Goes On (Ripple) 5. That Loving Feeling (Isaac Hayes) 6. More Bounce to the Ounce (Zapp) 7. Mon Espir Part en C… (Expression Direkt) 8. La Peur du Métissage (Assassin) 9. J’Attends (Marie Daulne) 10. Putain de Planète (Timide et Sans Complexe) 11. Arrivée et Salut à l’Assistance (Les Maîtres-Tambours du Burundi) 12. Je Ne Vois Que Moi (Les Little) 13. Discussion (Jean-Louis Daulne & Marie Daulne) 14. Say It (Over and Over Again) (John Coltrane Quartet) 15 Songe (Marie Daulne) 16. Bicyclette (Jean-Louis Daulne).
If you don’t own La Haine on DVD then the Ultimate Edition is the one to have – however, the 10th Anniversary Edition, which is still on sale, is more than adequate itself, especially if the additional extras are not a consideration. The new documentary is certainly worthwhile however. Certainly for English-speaking audiences either edition is a must-have.