25 years after its release, “La Haine” stands as a riveting testament to France’s neglected underclass.
(WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS THROUGHOUT)
Written and directed by French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz, “La Haine” (French for “Hate”) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995 and received immediate acclaim. Filmed in color but published entirely in black and white due to budget restrictions, the drab palette serves as a star in its own right, complementing the film’s bleak themes with bleak visuals. The result is a symbiotic pairing which works so well that viewing the film’s deleted and extended scenes in color—which remained so due to being on the cutting room floor prior to the film’s release—look almost cartoonish and out of place by comparison.
“La Haine” centers around a day in the life of Hubert, Saïd and Vinz—three youths somewhere between the ages of 16-20. Each of the young men live in a vast housing project called the Muguet, constructed miles away from Paris’ five-star restaurants and looming Eiffel Tower in a banlieue (suburb). In a curious inverse to many of the housing projects located in the United States, France’s poor are left to rot on the literal margins of a city, whereas America’s poor and disenfranchised dwell within urban areas while those who can afford to do so populate the suburbs.
Kassovitz’s inspiration for “La Haine” was the April 6, 1993 incident in which a 16-year-old Zairian immigrant in Paris named Makome M’Bowole was killed while in police custody. M’Bowole was accused of shoplifting and was reportedly handcuffed to a radiator when he was shot at point-blank range by a police officer. Following the news of the shooting, violent clashes occurred the next day between officers and protestors who took to the streets to condemn racism and police brutality. M’Bowole’s shooting death was later ruled as an accident.
“La Haine” is set the morning after a riot raged the previous night between youths and police in a Paris suburb as a response to the brutal beating that a North African teenager named Abdel Ichaha received from the police, leaving him hospitalized and in a coma, an obvious parallel to M’Bowole’s murder.
After the film begins with an opening montage of various real-life riots raging throughout the streets of Paris set to Bob Marley’s “Burnin’ and Lootin’”, we see footage of a teenager (Saïd) sneaking past a line of menacing-looking officers standing outside of a police station as he approaches one of their vehicles and writes “F*** THE POLICE!” on it in French with a permanent marker before scurrying away to the apartment of his friend Vinz.
After a humorous shouting match ensues outside of an apartment building between Saïd, who’s down on the ground, Vinz’s sister from up above in her apartment window and an older man tells the two to shut up from his window in another building. Saïd enters the apartment and walks into Vinz’s bedroom, where the latter is found facedown in his bed, drooling as he sleeps. After some nagging from Saïd, Vinz rolls out of bed and briefly chats with his young friend.
We then see Vinz sitting at a dining table with his sister, aunt and grandmother while Saïd joins them. The camera’s framing gives viewers a clue as to how cramped Vinz’s family of four must feel having to live in a small apartment due to their lack of money. After he quickly scarfs down breakfast while his grandmother chides him for not going to temple, the next scene shows Vinz brushing his teeth in the bathroom in one of the film’s most infamous moments.
With a gold two-fingered ring engraved with his name, a perpetually furrowed brow and a buzzcut reminiscent of a working-class British skinhead circa 1960, Vinz is cast as the film’s (ultimately, wannabe) tough guy. After brushing his teeth, Vinz turns off the bathroom sink, stares at his reflection in the mirror and impersonates Robert DeNiro’s classic “You talkin’ to me?” scene from Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver.” Vinz’s impersonation ends with him forming his fingers into the shape of a gun and aiming it at his reflection, an omen of things to come.
The moment is portrayed as one of the film’s brief episodes of humor in an otherwise dark film. However, I suspect that more is at play in this event. On the surface, it appears as a scene featuring a young, angry kid who takes himself too seriously, but what if the intent is something completely different? Upon further inspection, it appears to me that Vinz’s mean-mugging and DeNiro-esque eyebrow movements are in fact not the result of a young man putting on a mask to show the world how much of a “badass” he is, but that he is instead psychologically preparing himself to face the harsh realities of the world in which he lives. Regardless of Kassovitz’s intention in writing the scene, it’s an interesting concept to consider.
Afterward, Vinz heads out to walk with Saïd while the two share a joint and meet up with their friend Hubert at his boxing gym located near the complex.
Upon entering Hubert’s gym, Saïd and Vinz discover that the place had been trashed during the riot. As Saïd and Vinz walk around to examine the damage, they spot Hubert wearing boxing gloves and swinging at a punching bag in the middle of what remains of his dimly-lit gym.
Appearing to be in his early twenties, Hubert is portrayed as the wise, elder, level-headed senior of the group. This is in clear contrast to Vinz being the hot-head and Saïd acting as the youthful, tagalong little brother of the two.
Though never explicitly stated, an overarching theme of the film is how the racial differences among the residents of the projects—a mixture of mostly second-generation African and Middle Eastern immigrants—pale in comparison to their shared sense of frustration and alienation as the trio of Hubert, Saïd and Vinz (West African, Arab and Jewish, respectively) are each aware to some extent of the social stratification they face as members of France’s young, poor immigrant class.
Hubert then joins Vinz and Saïd as they wander around the suburb talking with acquaintances, selling marijuana and ribbing each other as the hours tick by. Later on, before the boys set off to visit Abdel in the hospital, Vinz tells Hubert and Saïd that he has something to show them. We then see the three teenagers standing in an abandoned building as Vinz reaches into his jacket and pulls out a revolver—the same gun that news reports say a police officer dropped during last night’s riots.
Saïd takes a look at it and awes in admiration. Hubert, unimpressed, shakes his head in annoyance. Testing Vinz’s “manhood” in a sense, Hubert takes the gun from Vinz and asks what he plans on doing with it, pointing the barrel in his impulsive friend’s face.
Vinz quickly snatches the gun back and implies that if Abdel dies in the hospital that he plans on shooting a “pig” in retribution. “You gonna kill a cop?” Hubert asks, in which Vinz replies “It’ll get me some respect.” A few lines of dialogue continue between the two when Hubert suddenly feints a punch in Vinz’s direction, causing him to flinch. Hubert smiles at Vinz’s macho facade, issues a word of warning and leaves with Saïd. Vinz follows them, leaving the gun behind at first but then picks it back up and tucks it in the waist of his jeans without the others knowing.
What follows next is a series of events that finds the trio wandering around Paris for the evening. After the police refuse to let the boys visit a comatose Abdel in his hospital room, they argue with several officers in the hallway, resulting in Saïd being apprehended and taken down to the station while Hubert and Vinz get escorted from the premises by a good, honest cop that the kids know from their neighborhood who fortunately happened to be there. The cop takes Vinz and Hubert to the station to free their friend, and as the boys walk back home together, Vinz reveals that he’s had the pistol on him the whole time. Angered, Hubert walks back to his apartment alone and Saïd follows Vinz back to his apartment.
Some time passes, then we see Abdel’s older brother sitting in the backseat of a vehicle with two other men as he fires two shotgun rounds at an officer on the sidewalk in broad daylight, who just so happens to be the same cop that helped get Saïd out of jail. The cop suffers minor damage to his arm and the car is suddenly swarmed by police while Saïd, Hubert, Vinz and a dozen other neighborhood kids try to intervene before getting chased throughout the projects by the cops.
As the trio make their escape through an apartment building, Hubert and Vinz find an officer standing in their way. Vinz pulls out his pistol and aims it at the cop with a look of fear and hesitation. Luckily, Hubert swats the gun away, delivers a knockout punch to the officer and the two meet back up with Saïd before boarding a train to Paris.
During the train ride, Vinz embellishes details of the event to Saïd, loudly bragging how he was just about to blow the officer away before Hubert intervened. While Saïd and Vinz prattle on in excitement, Hubert sits in front of them with his back turned, gazing out of the window. With a view of trees and nice houses floating by in the distance, Hubert sees a billboard showing a photo of Earth with the words “Le Monde est à vous” (The World is Yours) written underneath it. As the sound of the train’s brakes squeal to a stop, Hubert shuts his eyes, trembles and clenches his jaw as if he’s about to cry in frustration. Once the train stops, he opens his eyes again, his expression blank.
Now in Paris, the characters run into more trouble. After a drug deal turns sour between the boys and a coke dealer named Snoopy who lives in a swanky condo, the loud commotion leads to the cops arresting Saïd and Hubert for marijuana possession as they try to leave the premises. An officer chases after Vinz, who evades capture. Next, during a particularly dark scene, two senior officers make a rookie cop observe as they racially mock and physically abuse a now-handcuffed Hubert and Saïd at a police station. One of the senior officers stresses to the rookie the importance of knowing “how to stop at the right moment.” The trainee is clearly uncomfortable but doesn’t say a single word while the abuse goes on in front of him. Once Saïd and Hubert are about to be taken to the holding cell, the rookie’s nervous gaze falls to the floor.
Having evaded arrest, Vinz spends his time at a movie theater but is unable to relax knowing that his friends have been captured. He runs into some older acquaintances from the Muguet project at an underground boxing event and rides in a car with them. They arrive at a nightclub but aren’t allowed inside by the bouncer. Enraged, one of the older guys pulls out a pistol and shoots the bouncer twice in cold blood while Vinz looks on, frozen in fear.
Half an hour past midnight, Saïd and Hubert, released from jail, run through the train station and miss the last train heading back home by mere seconds. Now stuck in Paris until the next train arrives in the morning, the duo reunite with a visibly shaken Vinz on the platform and decide to walk around the city.
They first stumble across an art gallery filled with abstract pieces, fancy appetizers and glasses of champagne. Donning leather jackets and tough expressions amidst a sea of people wearing expensive suits and trendy outfits, the boys stick out like a sore thumb. After Vinz and Saïd cause a disturbance by trying to talk to a couple of girls, the owner of the gallery tells them to leave. On their way out, the teenagers mock the group of rich art snobs, knocking over a statue and smashing a champagne glass on the floor in the process.
The boys then try to hotwire a car to get back home but fail, once again having to run from the authorities. We then see the kids sitting on a rooftop and sharing a joint. In a brief moment between the two, Hubert tells Vinz a story about a man who, in the process of falling from a skyscraper that he leaped from, tells himself “So far, so good” on the way down. Hubert uses the story to explain to Vinz that “it’s not how you fall, it’s how you land.” In response, a stoned Vinz replies that he “feels like an ant in intergalactic space,” highlighting the feelings of alienation and despair that each of the boys have.
Later on around 4 a.m., while hanging inside of a shopping mall to kill some time, they see an image of Abdel on a giant tv screen with a chyron reading “Mort de Abdel Ichaha” (Abdel Ichaha Dies). Hubert and Saïd stare at the tv in silence, Vinz looks at Abdel on the screen and softly nods his head to himself.
About a minute passes when Saïd and Hubert realize that Vinz has disappeared. Hubert then sees Vinz standing outside of the mall, holding what appears to be a gun and aiming at two officers across the street, unaware of the teenager standing yards away from them. A gunshot goes off and one of the cops goes flying through a glass window. The camera cuts back to Vinz and it’s made clear that he merely fantasized about shooting the officer and that the “gun” in his hand was just his fingers. Hubert runs up behind Vinz and smacks the back of his head in anger, leading to yet another argument between the three friends.
Fed up with Vinz, Hubert and Saïd walk off on their own while Vinz yells curses at them from a distance. He paces around for a bit and finally chases after his friends. As Hubert and Saïd walk down the street with Vinz trailing behind, they encounter a group of racist skinheads that Saïd had been taunting from the rooftop earlier. The gang jumps Hubert and Saïd until Vinz arrives seconds later and pulls his gun on one of the skinheads (played by Kassovitz in a Hitchcock-esque cameo). The rest of the gang runs away and the boys drag the thug into a secluded area.
They toss the skinhead onto a pile of trash and Vinz puts his gun in the thug’s face, saying that he’s going to kill him. The skinhead begs for mercy and Saïd tells Vinz to stop, but Hubert, knowing that deep down Vinz isn’t the tough guy that he tries to portray, tells Saïd to back off and encourages Vinz to shoot the racist. At one point, keying in on Vinz’s hesitance, Hubert even cocks the gun and holds it steady for Vinz, who eventually pulls it away and allows the man to live. As the thug runs to safety, Vinz dry heaves and shields his eyes with his hand, as if to mask his tears.
During the film’s final moments, dawn breaks during the teenagers’ train ride back home. Once they arrive at the projects, Vinz hands Hubert the gun and the three bid each other farewell, with Hubert walking alone and Vinz accompanying Saïd. As the two joke and laugh, a car suddenly pulls up in front of Saïd and Vinz. Three plainclothes officers get out and begin harassing them, with one officer pinning Saïd down against the car and the other two beating up Vinz. As Hubert runs back to his friends in an attempt to stop the abuse, an officer places a gun against Vinz’s head as a scare tactic, which he then accidentally fires, killing Vinz instantly.
A stunned look appears on the cop’s face as Vinz’s dead body lies on the ground, slumped against the car. Seconds pass until the officer, still in shock at what just happened, notices Hubert standing right behind him, silently staring at the body of his deceased friend. Hubert slowly walks up to the officer, pulls out the same gun that Vinz had given him less than a minute earlier and aims it right in front of the cop’s face, saying nothing and showing no emotion. The officer, fearful, quickly draws his gun in Hubert’s face as well.
As the two stare at each other in silence, the sound of a ticking time bomb plays. The camera begins to slowly zoom in on Saïd, who’s watching them from behind the car in terror. Hubert cocks the pistol back and in this moment we hear of voice-over of him saying a modulation of the same story he told Vinz earlier on the rooftop, summing up the film’s central theme:
“It’s about a society on its way down and as it falls, it keeps telling itself ‘So far, so good. So far, so good. So far, so good.’ It’s not how you fall that matters. It’s how you land.”
With Saïd’s face now solely in the frame, he shuts his tear-filled eyes and we hear the sound of a gunshot. The screen cuts to black and the credits roll. No follow-up. No resolution. No indication of who shot who. The film has ended.
On the DVD’s special features, Kassovitz discusses this grisly scene in a 2005 interview where he compares Vinz’s death to the famous moment from John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood in which the character Ricky gets shot and dies. Kassovitz explains that he’s a fan of the film, but considers the dramatic scene to be unrealistic.
“I love the film Boyz n the Hood, but I don’t understand the ending where he (Ricky) gets shot and it takes three minutes in slow motion when this is a story where people get shot everyday,” Kassovitz said. “I had imagined that when it (the shooting) happened, we (the audience) wouldn’t even see it—we’d hear the bang and that would be it. I decided that in my film (La Haine) when someone dies, he just dies. When Vincent dies at the end, that’s it. It’s shocking.”
Kassovitz’s 1995 offering of cinematic realism is a dark, moody reflection of life for young men and women around the world forced to live in environments plagued by poverty, violence, oppression, deprivation, alienation, systematic racism, feelings of hopelessness and little chance of escape. My introduction to the film was due to me renting it on a whim from my local library last year after being intrigued by its title. This wound up being one decision that I certainly don’t regret.