La Haine: 10th Anniversary Special Edition Review
“How far you fall doesn’t matter, it’s how you land...”
Riots, gun fights, gang warfare and police brutality combine to fuel the explosive La Haine, director Mathieu Kassovitz’s electric mix of social commentary and sprawling urban drama. Released in 1995, it’s hard to believe that this French landmark is nearly a decade old. Often called a “masterpiece”, or a “classic”, it packs a raw, undeniable power, that explodes across the screen. Shot in black and white, and steeped in realism, it’s France’s answer to Boyz N’ the Hood, with the iconic cool of Easy Rider. Chances are, you’ve never experienced a cinematic thrill quite like La Haine.
With a title that translates as “Hate”, it shouldn’t be surprising that Kassovitz’s picture is brimming with anger. As the film opens, we’re flung straight into the depths of hell, as real-life news footage sends an unnerving chill down the spine. The inner-city youths battle with the police. Sirens sound, glass shatters and fire roars. And then, the first of many memorable images - a snap-shot of the world from space, as a petrol bomb goes off; “destroying” the earth in a blaze of light. La Haine doesn’t follow a conventional narrative structure, and there isn’t a story to tell as such. Instead, Kassovitz introduces us to a trio of disillusioned men who walk the scum-ridden estates with an aimless detachment. They’ve nothing to enjoy in life. Their time is spent counting down to the next riot or outburst of violence. These bombs are just waiting to detonate.
In no time at all, Kassovitz establishes these troubled souls - Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Said (Said Taghmoui) and Hubert (Hubert Kounde), men from very different backgrounds, but with one common thread. They’re walking the road to nowhere, with only their hatred towards the police keeping them sane. Such a stark message is depicted in an unflinching way; the director makes no attempt to soften the material. Kassovitz is deeply concerned about the class struggles in and around Paris, using the real locations to shoot these events. It’s essentially a day-in-the-life affair (complete with a ticking clock that appears on screen). The catalyst for violence is personal in more ways than one. After the particularly bloody riot the night before, a friend of the gang’s has been beaten severely, and lies in a hospital bed. This is the reason they’ve been looking for. Vinz, inparticular, says that he’ll “shoot a policeman” if their friend dies.
After this, we follow the trio on their path to destruction. Tension builds, slowly simmering to a boil. It is clear that they hate their lives - all the time, they’re looking to vent their frustrations. In one scene, Hubert notices a poster that reads “The World is Yours”; closing his eyes in an attempt to dream the world away. But he’s soon brought back to reality. And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for these thugs. The estates are derelict and bleak, and armed policemen prowl every metre. They may be free, but it feels so much like prison. It’s a testament to Kassovitz that the movie is so realistic. In many respects, the estate acts as a character - reflecting the group’s sense of inner-turmoil. They’re crumbling under the pressure.
Later, the characters venture into Paris, providing a notable shift in tone. Kassovitz even signals the change through camera trickery. Like animals, the trio have left their natural habitat. They feel out of place here, lost amidst the designer shopping stores and tourist attractions. They are alienated everywhere they go, including a trendy art gallery, where the cultures clash in spectacular fashion. And once more, the rift between them and the police is firmly established. In one quietly disturbing sequence, Hubert and Said are tortured in a police station, belittled by the officers who claim superiority. They aren’t there to be questioned, merely for their amusement.
Therefore, it’s obvious that the film would create controversy when it was finally released. The initial showings at the Cannes Film Festival were enough to decide its fate - the authorities wouldn’t provide security for the stars or director, essentially boycotting the picture. While it’s difficult to side with Kassovitz 100%, the film was based on real occurrences; something that cannot be argued. The police are needed, and Kassovitz knows this, but deep down, he can’t help but hate them too. Hatred breeds hatred, and as long as the police look down on the lower classes with little respect, this vicious cycle will continue.
The cast clearly understood this too. Each of them invested a lot of time to their roles, pushing the envelope in terms of authenticity (even using their real names for extra effect). Kounde is perhaps the most sympathetic of the three, since it’s clear he’d rather live in peace than suffer the harsh street life. Taghmoui helps the film too in some respects, providing brief stretches of comic relief to lighten the melancholic tone. But it’s Cassel that walks away with the film. He fills the character of Vinz with a palatable sense of rising anger, and is the very definition of hate. A constant ball of energy, much of the film rides on his shoulders. Carefully characterised and played, the roles also add to the social commentary on a racial front. Vinz is from a Jewish bloodline; Hubert an African heritage, and Said is part Arab. On the estate, such racial divisions clearly cease to be. They have made their own laws, and compared to the higher classes, racism is rarely an issue. No wonder the film is such potent food for thought.
Though La Haine isn’t all psychological. The look of the picture is stunning; an intoxicating flurry of images and style. Photographed by Pierre Aim, the film was lensed in colour, and transferred in black and white, which gives the image an added depth. No matter how high he has fallen with Gothika, La Haine proves that Kassovitz is a director to study. The camera moves are carefully staged, often showing slow-motion, distortion and creativity in single takes. The visual know-how stretches to the editing, which steals from the French New Wave in its use of jump cuts and emphasised sound. La Haine really does impress optically, and merely adds an extra layer of class to the proceedings. Here, Kassovitz has a story and themes to back-up the technical prowess, making the picture an important piece of celluloid, that remains must-see viewing.
It will be hard-going for some. It’s a series of down endings, followed by a conclusion just as bleak. But that’s life, as the famous song once said. Kassovitz and his crew had the balls to show the uglier aspects of society, and their efforts paid off superbly. A modern classic that really deserves the tag, La Haine should be watched and felt by all generations, if only to confirm the obvious truth: we’ve got it easy...
Fans of world cinema rejoice! With the DVD rights changing hands between Tartan and Optimum, La Haine finally gets the disc it deserves - a technically outstanding release, that makes the 10th Anniversary something to savour. While a quick look at the extras may spark disappointment, the distributors took quality over quantity, producing a highly satisfying disc.
The Look and Sound
The previous DVD was nothing to cry about visually, but it’s clear that La Haine has never looked better. Optimum’s digitally-remastered anamorphic presentation is pretty much perfect. The black and white photography screams with knife-edge sharpness, with every minute of run time transferred with the utmost care. The blacks are clean and deeply rendered, and the print is clear of heavy grain. Edge haloes and compression aren’t problems either - this transfer really does showcase La Haine expertly. The only lull in quality is the opening news footage, but this is to be expected considering the real-life source. I was bowled over by this transfer, and long-time fans will be too.
Moving on, the audio comes in two flavours - Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. The 5.1 track is excellent, adding a lot of weight to the film. From the foreboding ticking of the films internal clock, to the uproar of sudden violence, the audio helps to pack a punch. It is also one of those tracks that completely smothers you in the experience, generating a claustrophobic two hours. The only problems I encountered were the odd patches of unheard dialogue, that were lost in the ambience. While the tracks can’t really compete with the video quality for overall panache, they come pretty darn close. Well done Optimum...
These are outstanding. Anamorphically-enhanced and fully animated, they feature clips from the film cut to the pumping soundtrack. Make a selection, and gunshots explode across the surrounds. Elegantly designed, and simple, they are the icing on the cake.
The previous release was notoriously sparse in extras, with only the trailer and production notes provided. Once more, Optimum have done right, providing a decent slew of material to satisfy fans.
Audio Commentary by Director Mathieu Kassovitz
Recorded specially for this new release, Kassovitz’s commentary is a leisurely retrospective. Like much of the public, he can’t believe the film has been around for 10 years, sighting its popularity in France and the rest of Europe. It takes him a few minutes to settle down, but once he does, the comments are constantly engaging. Naturally, he talks about the hostility surrounding the film by the police, and how he questions their methods. He remembers joy at the films eventual acceptance, and how they created such dynamic footage with little money. Covering most of the bases you’d expect, this commentary is worth a listen.
Behind the Scenes #1
A short vignette, running around 10 minutes, that was shot during the films production. It is surprisingly well rounded considering the run time, and focuses upon some tricky stunt work. Among the talking heads, are Kassovitz, Vincent Cassel, Hubert Kounde and Said Taghmoui. This is inter-cut with shots of the stroryboarded sequence, and glimpses of the original colour footage.
Behind the Scenes #2
This was shot before the film got made, and reveals how the cast and crew lived on the estate during the production. With actual footage of them living in such conditions, we get comments from the above participants, and more insight from Kassovitz, who seems more than a little nervous about the rushed nature of his schedule. Best regarded as an historical document, fans will find this fascinating. They will also love --
Scenes in Colour
Since La Haine was shot in colour, the DVD producers have been given access to the original negative; revealing this montage of cut footage and extended takes. It feels weird to see these characters in a whole new light, but I was thankful for the chance to see it. A nice touch.
The set is completed by two trailers for La Haine, and a bunch of previews for other “Optimum World” releases.
Don’t be swayed by the black and white look, or foreign language - La Haine really is a modern masterpiece. Now that it’s been given a decent DVD, a purchase is recommended. Run, don’t walk, to the video store.