My Own Private Film Journal: The Troubled Youth of “La Haine”

(image via The Guardian)

The 1995 French film La Haine fits comfortably in the longstanding tradition of realist filmmaking in Europe, but it uses these traditional conventions to tell an entirely modern story, highlighting painful realities regarding the link between racism and violence in the late 20th-century. While La Haine's visual style evokes the stark, gritty black-and-white iconography made famous by the Italian neorealism movement in the 1940s and 50s, this stylistic decision is not merely an homage to European film history: it is a choice made for the express purpose of contrasting the characters with their environment, furthering the themes of the narrative through visual storytelling. The sparse black-and-white images initially appear to bring order and to assure an adherence to a "safe", classical style of filmmaking, but this sense of order is quickly dismissed as unattainable as the film's violent world is revealed. One visually notable scene sees a shot of Herbert smoking in his room, the frame awash in shades of black, followed by a cut to a shot of his window from the outside. The wall of the building is stark white, but when Herbert opens his window to reveal the shades of black within his room, the previously separate images are combined and immediately lose their cohesion: the surface is discordant with what is contained within.

Accordingly, the film subverts its audience’s expectations of the racial tensions depicted: historically, films that address race and violence have drawn on racist stereotypes that link violent tendencies to skin color, and La Haine cleverly turns the tables on such narrow-minded thinking. In this film, the light-skinned Jewish protagonist, Vinz, is the most radical and predisposed to violence, whereas the black protagonist, Hubert, is the one who wants to get out of “the life” and away from the violence of his community. The film uses this subversion of racial stereotypes to further emphasize the injustice of a society in which people are judged by their skin color rather than their behavior. This is particularly evident in a sequence where the characters are accosted by police and Vinz, the instigator of the group, manages to escape while his black and Arab friends are arrested and endure torture by the police. While in police custody, Hubert is tied to a chair and abused by police officers, and his posture is eerily similar to a poster image for the recent horror film Get Out, another film that explores racially-charged acts of violence. This visual parallel confirms the continued relevance of La Haine's message, as the same issues continue to be explored in cinema nearly a quarter of a century later.

(images via YouTube and KinoArt.cz)

The violence of this shot is merely a sampling of the anger and brutality that punctuate the entirety of the film. Indeed, nearly every scene ends with violence, from tense fights among the protagonists themselves to their aggression towards a group of women at an art gallery. Even the film’s cinematic allusions relate to violence; the film features references to Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, and when Vinz passes some time at the movie theater, the unidentified film he watches features a loud gunfight. In this, the ultimate form of escapism becomes merely an extension of the character's violent reality. One poignant scene sees Hubert declare that the lights of the city will go off when he snaps his fingers, and after he walks away, they actually do; here Kassovitz reminds his viewers that they are watching a film, but in the process hides this fact from his protagonists, a clever way to depict the tenuous line between realism and fiction in a film: anything is possible in the cinema, but the characters cannot be made aware of this, or the illusion will be broken.

The one other scene where the film visually defies its otherwise realist style is when Vinz imagines that he has shot a police officer. He shoots the officer in the chest, and the impact lifts the man off the ground and hurls him through the air, until he hits a store window and collapses among the shattered glass. This is a sequence befitting an action film, not a realistic social protest film like La Haine; it reflects what violence is like in the movies--and by extension what Vinz wishes violence was like after spending his formative years in a movie theater--rather than what violence looks like in reality. As a result, when Vinz actually has the opportunity to shoot a skinhead late in the film, the scene is shot quite differently: the man is crying, his face bloodied, with Vinz’s gun pressed against his head in a tight close-up. Hubert urges Vinz to pull the trigger, knowing he will not, perhaps cannot, and he does not. There is a sense of catharsis: the whole film has been building up to this moment, and suddenly the tension is released as the volatile Vinz relinquishes his stolen pistol to Hubert. In this moment, the young protagonists prove themselves to be different from the corrupt authority figures and racist deviants that hold them down, refusing to kill someone weaker and more vulnerable than they are.

This scene allows for the actual climactic moment of violence to come out of nowhere, an unintentional shooting that simultaneously leaves the audience reeling while also explaining that ominous countdown that has primed the audience to expect a shocking climax, yet never could have prepared them for this. The once-peaceful Hubert is compelled to act for his fallen friend much the same way Vinz was compelled to act for Abdel, but unlike Vinz, Hubert is left with no way out; the protagonists have proven their capacity to rise above the impossible circumstances facing them, yet in this unjust society the odds will always be against them. The camera denies the viewer the image of what comes next, instead focusing on Saïd’s face, rendered childlike in its horror as the sound of two gunshots pierce the soundtrack. The world belongs to you . . . So far, so good.

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