Conversations about film
December 17, 2020
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995
Jim Wilson: Richard and Baker, welcome to Collokino. It’s great to finally have you on. How are you?
SC Baker: Hey there, Jim! Thanks so much for having us. I’m SC Baker, but I’ve exclusively gone by Baker since middle school, so that’s what friends call me (on Letterboxd I’m under the moniker cuckoochanel). I’m doing well—just enjoying the sunshine and spying on the neighbor’s cat in the backyard.
Richard Chandler: Hey, Jim! Thanks a lot for inviting us to your forum; Baker can verify that there’s nothing I enjoy more than discussing films. So, pandemic notwithstanding I’m doing about as well as can be expected. How about you, Jim?
Jim: I’m fine. Looking forward to discussing this film with you two. I have to admit I’m a little intimidated by hosting not one, but two formidable film adepts. Go easy on me!
So, let’s start with you describing your initial encounters with La haine, when and how you first discovered it and the impression it made on you.
Richard: Of course we’ll go easy on you, Jim! We’re your guests after all, and what’s more we’re beginners here.
Anyhow, I was eleven when La haine debuted in the U.S., and despite the fanfare that came with Jodie Foster’s promotional boost, it simply wasn’t on my radar until much later. I believe it was in 2008 that I stumbled across the Criterion Collection DVD at a Barnes & Noble in Northwest Ohio, and I was so taken by the synopsis on the back cover that I immediately bought it sight unseen and was bowled over when I saw it. Having grown up as a disobedient latchkey kid from a single parent household in an economically depressed suburb of a nearby (yet still inaccessible) metropolis, I felt able to relate to the conditions of La haine far more specifically than I could with domestic stuff like Do the Right Thing and Boyz n the Hood, much as I admired those films. There was something about the torpor of lower-class suburban ennui on display that spoke to me very directly.
Baker: Unlike Richard, I really didn’t have an early appreciation for arthouse or foreign film. I dipped my toe in the cinematic waters in college, but that limited exposure was exponentially expanded when Richard and I started dating. One of the first films he ever screened for me was La haine. We watched it snuggled on the loveseat, his brother commandeering the couch. I was instantly sucked in by its raw energy, the world-building and the phenomenal acting. I grew up in a very poor part of rural North Carolina—nowhere near a city, nothing resembling a metropolis, but I still recognized the poverty, the racial intermix, and the slim likelihood of upward mobility from one of these shunned neighborhoods.
I had no idea what a ride I was in for, but at the end of the movie I was so shaken that I started violently crying (in front of my new beau and his brother). I had to excuse myself to the bathroom and sobbed on all fours in the dark for about 10 minutes. It was a very visceral first watch for me, and a trigger warning to Richard that I’m an extremely sensitive empath. I think I freaked his brother out, haha.
Jim: Wow, that’s quite a reaction, Baker. You both have far more memorable origins with La haine than I do. Like nearly all films, I came to it long after its initial release, so probably a couple years ago. Because it’s French, and because it’s Cassel, in that order, I watched it, and was really enraptured by all of its stylistic flourishes. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to grasp its finer points.
But let’s go through a quick summary of the story before settling into discussing the specifics. Remember, Collokino is a giant spoiler, so don’t feel the need to conceal anything. Baker, would you do us the honors?
Baker: Sure thing! La haine is a black and white French tragedy written, directed and co-edited by Mathieu Kassovitz, released in France in 1995 and stateside in 1996. The story takes place over the course of about 20 hours and follows a small crew of three guys from an impoverished, immigrant-populated Parisian banlieue (suburb) immediately following an overnight civil riot incited by police brutality against a local Muslim youth, Abdel. We get an intimate snapshot of Vinz (Vincent Cassel), a Jewish bad boy with a particular distaste for cops , Afro-French boxer-turned-gym-owner/small-time drug dealer Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Saïd (Saïd Tagmaoui) a good-humored North African Muslim who is the connective tissue of the trio as they amble through the charred remains of their neighborhood and while away the hours socializing with various personalities from the cité (housing estate) until Vinz divulges that he recovered a missing police revolver from the riot and vows revenge if their friend Abdel dies. The three men struggle against each other, against society, and against the police in a series of events that take them to Paris and back and continue well into the early morning. Their struggles, however, meet an abrupt end when Vinz is murdered by a rowdy cop with careless intimidation tactics, and as Saïd looks on in horrific disbelief, Hubert takes on the mantle of fulfilling Vinz’s vengeful prophecy.
Jim: You could get a job doing that, you know, summarizing movies?
Okay, I want to look at this film in a few ways. It’s a stylistic spectacle of cinematic bravura, while also a complicated illustration of social and cultural flashpoints, and some things more elemental, it seems, to human nature. It’s easily extrapolated to the West in general, not just France. It’s 1995, but it could be now, for all that anything’s changed. Among other things, the film proclaims a theme around self-delusion and denial, of not seeing what’s coming until it happens, until it hits, or until, as the film’s running proverb goes, it lands. But what drives that fall, what keeps it going, is the point of it all. And that’s not the causes of the conflicts, the history around colonization and the immigration and social unrest that follows. That is, of course, crucial to understanding the topic, but it doesn’t matter here so much as the learned behavior of ingrained, even institutional, hatred. La haine, after all, means hatred.
But that hatred feels, again, removed, displaced by ever-greater measures of alienation. I think of the TV crew that stops to film the guys while they’re doing nothing, suspecting they’re some of the previous night’s rioters, spotting them, as Hubert points out, like animals in zoo. There’s a really deep vein of the absurd that runs through La haine, which is usually expressed through fixed, or repeating, visual images. I’m sure we’ll look at a few of them, but first, I gotta ask, speaking of animals, what’s up with Vinz’s cow?
Richard: You know, for the longest time I was content to dismiss Vinz’s cow as a likely hallucination as well as a red herring, and for a couple of reasons I still assume he’s probably fantasizing the cow. First of all, Saïd is altogether convinced that it’s nonsense straightaway. When Vinz spots the cow on the street he implores Saïd to observe it, and though Saïd does briefly glance in the direction where Vinz’s gaze is fixed, he remains jocularly unmoved, “Fuck you and your cow!” Additionally, a couple of pedestrians casually cross paths with the bovine apparition without interest. At any rate I used to regard the cow as a playful insertion of levity for the purpose of tone management.
However when researching the film in preparation for our discussion, I learned that Kassovitz included the cow as an allusion to his anarchist grandfather. The cow is representative of a misnomer derived from a battle cry popular in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870: “Mort aux bourgeois! Vive l’anarchie! Vive la Commune! Mort aux vaches!” What is meant by the phrase in denotative terms is something like: ‘Death to the bourgeois! Long live anarchy! Long live the Paris Commune! Death to German guards!’ But to a pedant the final phrase would translate as ‘Death to cows!’. The confusion arises from the similarity between the German Wache (guard) and the French vache (cow). Thus, I’m now inclined to consider Vinz’s cow—whether real or imagined—to be a totemic manifestation of a hated militaristic force; the notion of the German guards has given way and been extrapolated more broadly to the French police that Vinz so clearly despises. In this light, the cow which I once found so whimsical may instead signal an obscure portent of Vinz’s undoing.
Jim: I would expect nothing less than that level of inquiry from you, Richard. That’s a great nugget, since Vinz does have a sort of epic view of the conflicts around him. It’s not unlike the perspective of a lot of young fighters in stories about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, where centuries of historical conflict are seen as reflected in the everyday encounters between rebel youth and armed authority figures.
We meet a lot of characters in the early scenes, many of the trio’s other friends and family, while also getting a strong sense of place, the banlieue of La Cité de la Nöe, where much of the film takes place, and where the three young men live. The police are a constant, threatening presence, with whom there are established, and complex, relationships, ranging from all out hostility to a kind of uneasy cooperation.
In one scene, on the roof of a building Hubert has acquired to establish a boxing gym, we encounter a microcosm of these multiple and varied relationships. This scene also turns out to be foundational to the film’s outcome. Baker, can you walk us through some of these dynamics we witness on the roof of Hubert’s gym? It’s a dense and rapidly paced scene, so I’m curious if there are things you make out from it that I may have missed. What do we learn on the rooftop?
Baker: You’re right, Jim; this scene is brisk and filled with a lot of the energy indicative to the movie as a whole—very much a microcosm, as you noted. There’s the general respect given to Hubert by the boys from the cité: note the rooftop party ‘host’ charges everyone for hotdogs except Hubert since he owns the building and has established himself as a community ally by opening the boxing gym. It’s also established on the roof that Hubert has a criminal past. When he and Vinz are discussing doing community service versus a jail sentence for robbery, Hubert reveals he quit his nefarious ways before he was in too deep and/or was caught by authorities. In this conversation, you also get the sense that Vinz is looking to develop his identity within the social construct of the banlieue—he would rather do jail time because of the street cred it would afford him, and he muses almost enviously that everyone in the neighborhood has done time but him. There’s a subtext of fraternity, the need to belong and the desire to be respected which plagues Vinz throughout the story. It’s obvious from the happenings on the roof that Saïd is an underling in the cité hierarchy. He can’t get a hotdog on credit, he has no apparent financial independence, and he is openly ridiculed by his seniors. Saïd however, shows himself to be cheeky and somewhat of a minor hustler, if not a social gnat. His older brother, Nordine, is well-respected within the cité, but it’s clear Saïd doesn’t live up to his legacy. However, of the three, Saïd is definitely the most exuberant and has an innocence about him. He has designer clothes and is ferociously protective of his sister, so although we never see his home life, we can assume it’s likely the most stable, if not strict, of the three.
The party is interrupted when police and the mayor arrive on the scene. Vinz and the neighborhood kids goad them from the rooftop, shouting insults and obscenities, and moments later the police chief and an entourage of plain-clothes police officers are breaking up the party. There’s a tense standoff between the pigs and the homies—complete with threats and openly disdainful displays of hostility on both sides. When the party thins out, Nordine kicks Saïd out—and although Saïd is resentful, it seems Nordine doesn’t want Saïd around in case something more serious pops off. Though Hubert also has an influential social status, he doesn’t provoke the police, and Vinz publicly chastises him for “wimping out” as they depart the roof. This is evidence of Vinz’s envy for Hubert’s status/power and his resentment toward Hubert for not using that power to actively combat the police.
During the cookout, it’s revealed in conversation that an officer lost their gun in the fray of the previous night. It’s important to note that French citizens are not lawfully allowed to own or carry firearms, so whoever found the gun would command serious respect on the street and an avenue to do more than simply talk shit to the oppressive forces at play. As it stands, the police have a major advantage over the poor and under-resourced inhabitants of the cité, and as we will see, some of them maliciously abuse that power.
Jim: I don’t know that there’s anything to it, but I am amused by the guy selling hot dogs, since that scene, and pretty much the whole film, is one giant sausage party.
One of my favorite things about watching French films is spotting various well-known actors in small roles, something they do with much greater regularity than British and American actors. Fun then to spot Philippe Nahon as the police commander in the roof scene. Known for playing really horrible, evil characters, like the Butcher in Gaspar Noé’s I Stand Alone and the serial killer in Alexandre Aja’s High Tension, it’s certainly apropos that he’s cast as a high-ranking police officer in a film where the police are viewed as monsters.
Richard, you have such a sharp eye for detail and layers of complexity, so I’m curious what are for you the high points from the earlier, establishing scenes in La haine, before the trio set off for the heart of the city. Take some time and disassemble what of these early scenes stand out for you, either stylistically or in terms of what they bring to the plot, characters, or the film’s underlying themes.
Richard: Haha, I’d never made the connective leap between the vendor and a sausage party, but perhaps Kassovitz should have cited that as a bit of knowing self-deprecation, given that the exclusive focus on the lives of young men—not only in La haine but in so-called banlieue films as a rule—has been a source of persistent criticism. I’m afraid I must also plead general ignorance with regard to the work of Phillipe Nahon, though my interest is piqued after learning that he also appears in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos. I was at least able to discern a young Benoit Magimel on the rooftop half a decade prior to his international breakout in The Piano Teacher.
Anyway I’m really glad you asked me about the opening act in La haine, inasmuch as this comprises my favorite portion of the film. Because La haine is set over the course of a single day and depicts a central trio whose relationships are already clearly defined amongst themselves, there’s a certain sense of being dropped in medias res, which would be disorienting if it weren’t for the dearth of plotting before the trip to Paris. The mundanity which comprises much of the film’s first half serves more than one purpose. Firstly, I don’t think there is any easier way for me to learn the internal dynamics of a social group than by simply observing its members in their most quotidian state. Secondly, their constant use of improvised social spaces like the playground designed for much younger children or the rooftop where the cookout takes place is indicative of the lack of cultural resources endemic to life in the banlieue.
In terms of style, there are a couple of things that really distinguish the early sequences in the cité for me. The first is the fluidity of the camerawork, which is evident right from the opening shot of Saïd tagging the police van. However, the most notable example is the long tracking shot that follows the trio from Hubert’s ruined gym through the labyrinthine nexus of the cité to a nondescript building where Hubert discreetly sells some drugs before they head up to the aforementioned rooftop party. I can only assume this was achieved with the use of Steadicam, and it’s simply remarkable how cinematographer Pierre Aïm is able to keep the ever-moving group in frame with such apparent casualness. The effect is more than simply a nod to stuff like Scorsese’s famous Copacabana shot; the seamlessness with which the protagonists traverse the moving frame serves to ground them as being within their element in the milieu of the cité—especially when compared to the Paris section which is comprised of fewer long takes and has a greater emphasis on montage. The flowing, unified nature of the camerawork in the film’s first half serves to indicate that despite the peril of police harassment and the lack of accessible cultural amenities, the cité nonetheless remains an internally navigable environment where our protagonists experience a sense of belonging.
The other stylistic flourish from the early going that really stands out for me is the inclusion of fantastical sequences (e.g., Vinz’s introductory dance, the aerial shot that reminded me of Wings of Desire), which by their juxtaposition serve to query the naturalistic style of the performances. These segments provide levity of course, but also a measure of critical distance. Without them the drama would be so absorbing that it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that Kassovitz isn’t depicting a set of actual events but rather a thought experiment.
Jim: I’m really glad you bring up that last point about the true nature of the film. I think it’s easy, at least from a casual perspective, to see La haine as a hyperrealist, or maybe better a hypernaturalistic, adventure story, when in fact it’s much more contemplative than that, at least to a point. I have my own view on the film’s ultimate take-away, so am curious to hear more on the thought experiment you see in it, but let’s pause on that for the moment.
I didn’t notice Magimel on the roof! He’s one of favorites. It goes to underscore what I was saying earlier about that scene, where there’s so much going on, along with the demand of reading rapid-fire subtitles, that I suspect I’m missing half of what there is to take in.
Like you, I’m really impressed by the camera work in the early scenes, with that soaring quality that the Steadicam lends (I was just watching Bernardo Bertolucci describing the Steadicam effect as one of flying, albeit at eye-level). It really struck me how painstakingly rigorous many of those shots must have been to set up. So yeah, as much as Kassovitz captures the trio and the world they live in with a very convincing degree of naturalism, it also has the feel of a deliberate series of actions, in which the camera is performing a dance between and around the characters and their environment. There’s something vaguely comic-book-like in its visual arrangement.
I do want to single out the scene when the three are sitting in that playground area and the little kid is recounting to Vinz an episode of Candid Camera, or something similar. The kid’s story has the same flat, atonal, and aimless quality to it that the whole scene has, one of boredom and changelessness. I think the time-stamp has them sitting there for nearly two hours. It’s a wonderfully condensed and effective way of illustrating how much of these guys’ lives unspool every day in aimless inaction amid hulking and oddly surreal concrete structures.
Oh, and the breakdancing scene! The guys breakdancing to Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” is really one of the great dance sequences in the history of cinema. I could happily watch that on repeat for hours. It doesn’t serve much more of a purpose than as a place-setter, but like a lot of the visual fauna of La haine, it’s lovingly magical, captured by static face-forward shots at the same level as the dancers, a splash of local color (as that is in a B&W film), the last dancer left spinning on his head as another burst of violence erupts outside.
But anyway, let’s get on board the train and head into Paris. The trip is predicated on the need for Saïd to find a guy named Asterix to pick up some money owed to him, but there’s also a boxing match that Vinz was invited to attend. I’m gonna leave it up to either one of you to usher us into the film’s fateful crucible, or maybe you wanna tag-team it. Pick up the thread and take us into town.
Richard: Sure thing, Jim. As it happens, Baker is stuck in a meeting right now, so I’ll take the baton for the moment. I hadn’t heard that Bertolucci description before, but it’s a very apt one. And now that you mention it, I can definitely see what you mean about the comic-book aesthetic—especially with regard to the frequent insertion of crashing noises to punctuate hard cuts between scenes as well as the self-consciously cinematic use of circular pans and dolly zooms.
I’m glad you singled out the Candid Camera scene because I agree that with an economy of resources it establishes a great deal, and I think the anticlimax of the kid’s account is pure drollery. I’m right there with you on the Zapp sequence, too; I’d put it up against The Red Shoes any day. I also love the little spat that precedes it between Saïd and his sister—and Vinz, sort of. I find it very endearing how flustered Saïd becomes, even though he’s trying to project some pretty odious machismo there. It’s just a little moment that I find touching, but It’s also noteworthy because it’s the closest La haine ever really comes to depicting Saïd’s domestic life.
And now on to Paris. I wonder if—in addition to the objectives you noted—our restive trio was also motivated to take a trip because the cité was suddenly abuzz with cops in riot gear. Anyhow the first thing I noticed about the train ride and the early scenes in Paris is that while the camera still frames the three of them at once, it is no longer in a way that emphasizes their closeness. Rather it tends to foreground the persistent alienation they experience outside the banlieue and more specifically the simmering hostility growing between Vinz and Hubert—the most obvious example being the Grunwalski scene.
With the aid of the restroom’s numerous mirrors, the opening shot captures the trio in a medium close-up that bisects them at the waist and shows each of them looking in opposite directions, the only real dialogue occurring between Saïd and himself as he awaits a fourth party on the phone. When Kassovitz then cuts to a master shot, it becomes evident that Vinz and Hubert are actually sulking concurrently in separate rooms. The emergence of the old man from the stall is hilarious and short-circuits one of the few confrontations in the film I find to be overwritten. The rest of the scene is a marvel, though. I love how the Grunwalski story disarms and briefly reunites the trio, who seem tantalized by its blend of scatological and macabre elements yet vaguely threatened by their inability to determine its allegorical import. Of course by the film’s conclusion, this proves bitterly ironic as Vinz’s tragic fate hinges on the trio’s failure to catch the last metro. But now I’m putting the cart before the horse, so perhaps Baker can bail me out with some of her impressions about the trip to Paris.
Baker: My impression of the entire trip to Paris is pretty much summed up in the establishing shot (which incidentally is my favorite shot in the film). The guys are on the Montparnasse Station terrace, hemmed in by a railing, their backs overlooking Rue de Rennes and the dense and lively city, when the camera moves back as the lens zooms in. The trio are kept in perfect focus, but the perception of perspective is continually distorted until the buildings and streets are nothing but blurred, abstract, foreign impressions. I think that shot predicts how the trio will find Paris to be very unnavigable, inhospitable, culturally alien and dangerous in ways both akin to and unlike those threats of the cité. Their individual social skills and temperaments are ill-equipped to maneuver society, and they sequentially antagonize an armed, drug-stimulated criminal, get arrested and assaulted viciously by police, witness a murder, miss the last train back home, get ejected from an art gallery for being abusive, almost get caught trying to steal a car, and have a rumble with skinheads.
What’s interesting throughout the film is the various displays of Vinz’s privilege as a white man that start in the banlieue but are extrapolated to Paris: Saïd elects Vinz as the pale-faced spokesman to negotiate their way into Asterix’s apartment building, though he proves to be the least socialized of the three. Vinz also escapes arrest by virtue of being white and innocuously leaving the complex, buying him time and an opportunity to flee while Hubert and Saïd are brutalized on the street by police. While in custody, Hubert and Saïd are tortured by corrupt cops, whereas Vinz goes to the movies and meets up with other friends at a boxing match (and even has the gall to complain that Hubert and Saïd were pissing him off!). However, when Vinz is exposed first-hand to the gun violence he’s been fantasizing about, we see a true reaction of shock, fear and distress—while Hubert appears all-too familiar with the violence happening at the precinct house. Vinz is nonchalant at the reunion after they miss the train home—he never asks about his friends’ wounds. Nor does he have any reason to fear when they unexpectedly encounter a group of skins on the street. In fact, Vinz’s nascent white savior complex blooms as he holds one of the aggressors (played by Matthieu Kassovitz himself) at gunpoint. The whole film has been inching toward this showdown—Vinz’s full-throated determination to decimate bigoted opposition by violent force symbolically in the name of their friend Abdel, and yet he can’t pull the trigger. Hubert alludes to Vinz’s inability to fully assume the mantle of such a crusade several times, but never so succinctly as when they’re leaving Asterix’s flat in a flurry of frustration and wounded ego: “Stop carrying the world on your shoulders! You ain’t got the build for it!”
Jim: Great points, Baker. For my own selfish reasons, this is why I love these conversations, for all the perspicacity my guests bring to them.
I would love for either of you to describe technically how that shot on the train station terrace is executed. I’ve seen it before in other films, but here there’s something ominous about it, a distortion of perspective and sense of place that foreshadows the events to come in a succinct, and visually chilling way. How is it technically achieved?
And a trivia question for either of you. While his friends are being tortured by the police, what are the films, unseen to us, but heard, that Vinz watches while laying low in Paris?
Richard, I love your emphasis on the bathroom scene. It is, for me, the crucial scene of the entire film, when the consequences of people mistreating one another, even friends or compatriots subjected to so-called teasing, are tragic. The spectrum of inhumanities serves as the vessel in which the story is contained, from the old man’s puzzling tale to the shocking brutality of the Paris police station. The way the old man’s story foretells the trio’s ultimate fate is, really, conceptual genius.
We could go on indefinitely recalling the many confrontations Vinz, Hubert and Saïd experience in Paris, though I think you both have already outlined them more than sufficiently. I would add the rookie cop in the police station scene, who is effectively being “trained” about how to ideally torture a suspect, and who is clearly distressed, if not passively tortured himself, by what he sees, or the drunk passerby who inserts himself into the trio’s attempt to hot-wire a car (the fantastic Vincent Lindon, another of my favorite French actors in a cameo appearance), but I think it better advances the discussion to seize on the broader ideas that ground the film and provide it with a meaningful context beyond the horrific details, singly or in sum. Racism, classism, immigration, institutionalized brutality, alienation and dehumanization – they’re all there, but is there something else that rumbles beneath it, that offers a key to not necessarily making sense of the film, or explaining it, but to resolving it, to offering solutions to the sad litany of horrors we witness every step of the way? As we move toward the film’s final demoralizing, but entirely predictable, end, what is it that we’ve learned?
Richard: As regards the shot on the terrace I’m afraid that whatever input I can provide will be theoretical, as I have no firsthand experience with such matters. But as I understand it, the basic method of a dolly zoom (or compressed zoom as some would have it) is to zoom in while simultaneously pulling the camera back at such a rate that the immediate foreground subject seems to remain in place while the background swells and rushes toward the frame. The dramatic shift in focus is produced by a fluid in-camera transformation from widescreen (which captures the background in relative clarity) to telephoto (which is more often used for closeups and focuses deeply on the foreground subject while causing pixilation of the background).
If I’m not mistaken, I think one of the films Vinz watches in the theater is Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact because I vaguely recall someone more observant than me once noting that Eastwood uses a .44 Magnum like the one Vinz has obtained. I’m stumped on the other one, though. Anyway, I love your analysis of the Grunwalski story (especially about the teasing—a parallel I hadn’t considered) and agree wholeheartedly that it’s the fulcrum around which the film pivots.
First of all, with regard to the overall takeaway of La haine, I think your roundup of societal ills on display is a pretty comprehensive one—though I might add educational deficits and the commonness of non-traditional and single-parent households. As far as solutions go, I think the film is rather sobering. To my eyes Kassovitz projects a world ordered by grim determinism in which the deprived possess hardly any agency. So fatalistic is the prognosis that—despite the subject matter—it feels ultimately more reminiscent of Greek tragedy than a so-called social problem film. On a narrative and cinematic level, of course this is an asset; who doesn’t prefer Euripides to Stanley Kramer? But viewed as a mirror to society (even if an allegorical one), it’s deeply depressing and more than a little terrifying.
Baker: There’s such a conspicuous parallel of the themes at play in La haine and those that are still prevalent in today’s society worldwide—but as an American, I can only speak specifically on the state of racial injustice as it relates to law enforcement here at home. It’s true that those abused by individual police and the justice system at large span all races and creeds, but there is no denying that a disproportionate number of people exploited by this system are black and brown folx from low-income neighborhoods. It’s a problem that is soaked into the identity of the system, from the way prisons are privatized and operated to the police unions’ chokehold on lawmakers regarding reforms and external oversight. In La haine, these police harass the banlieue youth for sport—they’re armed with guns while, as one protestor shouts, “we only have rocks.” And on both sides of the pond and throughout history police have had the advantage of not only weaponry, but of the judicial system, legal loopholes, and a chunk of the city’s budget backing them. Vinz’s anger and frustration at the continual tyranny and abuse of his peers is something many of us have experienced (or should be able to sympathize with)—despite his inability to productively work through those raw feelings. Hubert, being the wiser, more experienced member of the triad, continually tries to make Vinz understand the endlessness of police resources and superiority in the social order. He insists that killing one cop will do nothing for the cause, because another will take his place in an instant. Rather, he encourages camaraderie by suggesting they visit Abdel in the hospital. The end is so tragic, because we see Vinz taking the first step to admitting being a cowboy won’t help the overall quality of life for anyone in the cité, only to be carelessly dispatched by a cop playing cowboy himself. Hubert, recognizing the vicious cycle of hate in their neighborhood is too strong a whirlpool to deny, is pulled into its current in the immediate aftermath. I think the deliberate withholding of closure at the end is Kassovitz highlighting how this maelstrom will continue unresolved until elemental changes occur—as cynical a message as it is prophetic, because here we are 25 years later dealing with the exact same problems in precisely the same ways.
Jim: You know, I don’t know what Kassovitz had in mind in a fully comprehensive sense. I’m sure he’s talked about it, but I’m not going to run that down. The points you both make are clearly his intent, since there’s nothing subtle about it. It’s obviously a film about a society on the way down, assuring itself as it descends that all is well, when nothing could be further from the truth. The impact that society will have with the destiny it has assured itself by its own self-neglect is inevitable. It’s as true today as it was twenty-five years ago, if not more so. But there’s another societal malady as true then as it is today, and it’s written all over this film. To what degree it was Kassovitz’s intent is, again, unknown to me, and immaterial, since it’s as evident in the film as racism or classism, or the betrayal of the liberté, égalité and fraternité of France’s national motto.
It’s as accurate as any other metric of the ills witnessed in La haine to single out masculinity. It is literally on display in every second of the film. I joked about the sausage party on the roof, but it is, I’ll argue, a nod to a fundamental condition as much a cause of the malaise detailed in the film as any others. The number of female characters is vanishingly small, and they’re all objectified by the male characters, with the important exception of Hubert’s sister and mother, who are viewed through Hubert’s affection and respect (he is the film’s central, pivotal character, after all, so therefore exceptional). Male characters are constantly insulting and sexualizing the names of each other’s mothers and sisters; they’re all bitches and whores, or some other lovely epithet. But it’s not women their machismo is most interested in assaulting. The increasing extremes to which all the men abuse one another is driven by the need to further belittle and emasculate their perceived enemies. Even between friends, as exemplified by the tale the old man tells in the public restroom, the urge to unman is ubiquitous. I resist the term “toxic masculinity”, since the word toxic suggests a poisonous virility, and I don’t think that’s the actual effect of it. It’s not inaccurate, but it’s more accurate to think of it as an addiction, as a habit, a need, a dependency. These men tear into each other with a testosterone-soaked furor more elemental than the other equally repugnant motives that compel them.
But notice how the only men that can exert that masculinity, who can feed that jones with any satisfaction, are the white men. The men of color can never exceed their identities as African or Arab, in the eyes of their white tormentors, to successfully exert their male dominance. It’s a further insidious element of racism, that it emasculates a priori. I do find the art gallery scene unique in this way, since we see Hubert being uncharacteristically callous and sexist in his interaction with the two female patrons they target, though by then the rage unleashed in him in the wake of the police station assault is at full throttle. He’s lashing out in every direction to exert his dignity, either through sexual dominance or violence, as we see when he urges Vinz to shoot Kassovitz’s skinhead.
I would hesitate to advance the importance of berserk masculinity over the centrality of racism as the impetus for base behavior by the men of La haine, but I will argue they stand side by side, and emphasize the extent to which emasculation is built in to racism.
Baker: I think you make a strong point, Jim. The masculinity that runs through La haine is very demonstrative—a lot of proverbial chest-beating. The women really take a backseat in the narrative because its focus is highlighting the dysfunctional male relationships that make the world so much harder to live in. Even when Kassovitz introduces masculinity that isn’t aggressive, but rather more fraternal (as with the gentleman telling the Grunwalski story or the drunk encouraging the boys as they try to steal the car), it simply throws into high relief the hardened attitudes these boys have developed as a response and defense mechanism to more insidious masculine forces: the police, xenophobes, classists, racists like the skinheads we encounter within the film, or the officers in the grotesque Parisian police scene. This kind of degrading, unproductive male ego is really at the root of many of the problems within La haine and the world at-large. It’s deep, ingrained pain and distrust that breeds the kind of hate we see both onscreen and in life. Every group that forms has an ‘us versus the world’ mentality and we’re bearing witness to life being breathed into the various wars that have been silently declared between these groups, and even between men as individuals in the name of defending their masculinity.
I think that’s another reason why Saïd isn’t taken as seriously in the banlieue—he doesn’t project the same kind of coarse, brutish masculinity that many of the other men use as personality surrogates. He is more artless—he shows a range of emotion within the film that is not obscured through the lens of protective machismo, and I think that is why Saïd is the character I feel the most akin to; he’s the most human. You see him earnest, excited, flabbergasted, shamed, angry, dejected, hurt, scared—and it’s all there on his face without the pretense of the kind of male pride present in other characters (and again, probably goes back to his upbringing and home life likely being the most stable of the three main characters).
Jim: I haven’t said enough about individual characters and their psychologies, but you’re right, Baker. Saïd does not push masculinity around out in front of himself at all, and does have a more complete range of emotional reactions to things than any other character. Hubert has a classy and understated masculinity about him, at least until the police station. But again, I do think much of the reason neither Saïd nor Hubert are as brashly virile as Vinz or other white characters is because of the emasculating effects of racism.
Except for your quick summary of it, Baker, we haven’t spoken explicitly about the final scene. I think it’s a fairly straight forward event that doesn’t beg for much discussion, but I’ll hold it out for any further examination, if you wish, and as a springboard to final comments and conclusions on the film. Richard, any thoughts on the final confrontation with the police, or a neat bow you’d like to tie around your thoughts and impressions on La haine as a whole? And then the same for Baker.
Richard: Jim, I’m pretty much on board with your capsule summaries, though I would argue that from the onset of their torment Saïd displays his contempt for the abusive Parisian cops less diplomatically than does Hubert—perhaps owing in some measure to his kinship with Abdel who is also of beur extraction.
As for the final scene, to me it’s terribly visceral impact is heightened not only by its airtight concision but also of course by its ruthless abruptness, appearing as it does in place of the descending action one expects from the denouement—having likely assumed the first time through that the heated exchange with Kassovitz’s skinhead represents the film’s climax. Moreover, it serves as a chillingly ironic rebuke to whatever lesson Vinz may have just learned about the (f)utility of violence.
As a metaphor the shooting is superficially blunt, but upon examination I think it says more than it seems. That the shooting is apparently accidental is very much beside the overall point Kassovitz is trying to make about France’s social fracture, which to my eyes boils down to how little daylight exists between malice and simple negligence and whether there is even a meaningful distinction to be made between the two.
Baker: This is obviously the scene that had me swept up in a furious sobbing fit my first time round, and although I know it happens, each rewatch is a tearful gut-punch. I agree, Richard, that it’s the combination of both physical and emotional blunt force that initially stuns before giving way to the impact of Vinz’s death and all its tragic irony. But what’s more disgusting than the accident itself stemming from that same male superiority complex we were discussing earlier, is that the officer’s face when the gun discharges goes from honest shock to almost an intoxicated, awestruck expression—a rush of adrenaline that actually produces a half-chuckle, a surge of power and dominance even in the midst of his fatal mistake. And we know all too well that the system is designed to protect the officer on the administrative end (and these types of bavures, or police misconduct/blunders, are precisely what rioters are protesting)—and we’re still seeing protests here and abroad fighting for justice and police accountability.
What is so heartbreaking in that final shot is seeing Hubert face off in a moment that will define his life, and I simply recall him at the dinner table with his mother, lamenting that he needed to get out of the banlieue. In addition to all the other ills the film presents, the immutability of their circumstances is one that is presented in Paris but cemented in the final scene—there is little chance for upward mobility in these low-income, poorly-educated neighborhoods, and it can be a proverbial (and literal) death sentence.
Jim: The astute observations from both of you have been really rewarding for me, especially your emotional reactions, Baker, where the impact of any film is best measured. Much of the reason why I ask my guests to choose the film is to learn about how a film is observed, in detail, by those who are personally invested in it. I’ll be honest that although La haine impresses me very much on an artistic level, I’ve never found a strong personal connection to it during the several times I’ve watched it. I guess we all have our own touchstones. I want to thank both of you for widening my appreciation of this film.
So, I want to move now to the “Reverbs” segment I use to end these conversations, where I ask my guests to offer a single paragraph concerning something that’s been reverberating in their thoughts recently. What’s something that’s been regularly occupying your mind? It can be anything – good, bad, an endorsement, a condemnation, art, politics, anything. Whichever one of you wants to jump first, go for it.
Baker: I feel I’m hardly alone in saying that for me film, like essentially any other entertainment medium, is a way to escape—even momentarily—from the less poetic realities that await us when the credits roll. I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on mortality more than I ever have—hardly surprising given the status of the pandemic and its incessant rise over this year. Compound that with a venture Richard and I undertook after re-watching High Fidelity where we recreated our versions of playlists from the film—including songs we’d want played at our own funerals. Being a sensitive crybaby by nature, I did undergo a period of mourning just from creating that list and contemplating on Richard’s. My father, too, recently had a heart attack and underwent a triple bypass—thankfully he is recovering, though it’s a slow process. Not to be morbid, but the transience of existence, and with it employment, relationships, even a sense of ‘normalcy’ has been a recurring ruminative motif for me lately.
Richard: Jim, thanks a lot for inviting us and for the robust discussion; it was a lot of fun, and frankly it’s helped me learn a good deal about the film and also about my own feelings. Much like Baker, my thoughts over the past year have often been consumed by fear of the pandemic and revulsion at the entrenched monstrosity of police brutality—at least when not obsessing over Trump’s historic corruption, as well as the horrific specter of his potential reelection and/or refusal to peaceably vacate office. Of course, it remains to be seen if he’ll comply with the rule of law (if only perhaps for an interesting change of pace) now that he’s lost, but in any event, I must confess the election has not much ameliorated my feelings of despondency. If anything, its relative closeness has only reinforced my basically hopeless prognosis for the future of society and the human experiment at large. The one favorable note I can manage is that this veritable maelstrom of toxicity has sent us deeper into movies to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite stylists.
Jim: I’m afraid we’re in for some really unstable times ahead. Less than comforted by the result of the election, I’m now more anxious about what’s to come. I knew it would be bad, but not this bad. Democracy has to be fought for, constantly. It has to be something that people feel in their bones is a priority, which is a feeling we’ve lost. We don’t know why we want democracy, so we’re losing it.
But that’s not my Reverb, though what is is only slightly less grim. I’ve been having some loose thoughts about how the pandemic will be remembered in the future. But that sets up two binaries: Remembered by whom, individuals or society, and from when, the near or more distant future? I have a strong sense that it will be remembered differently than it was experienced, where the societal memory of it, meaning the way it’s documented, recorded, curated, etc., will, as time passes, gradually replace the individual memories of it. But even in the near term, the individual memories will vary wildly, and that variance will have a distorting effect on how it is remembered, by everyone and collectively. I’m generally fascinated by memory, and its completely unreliable nature, and when considering how something that impacted everyone’s lives on the planet will pass into first individual and then collective memory, I’m genuinely skeptical that it will be remembered as a big deal at all, or in the many faceted ways it was experienced at the time. It has been experienced so unevenly, depending on who you are, and where you are, I can’t help thinking that as it becomes a curated societal and cultural memory in the increasingly distant future, it will be largely forgotten, or seen as a minor event, or one of a series of minor events that were all pointing in the direction of something much larger that today, from where we sit now, we can’t observe or recognize at all. I guess it’s that little bit of a futurist in me that finds the question pleasantly perplexing. Obviously, these thoughts are still in tumble mode.
Baker, my thoughts for your Dad’s quick recovery, and a virtual hug to you both for doing this with me. It was a real pleasure. Have a happy holiday. We’re sure to pass each other in the Letterboxd hallways, so until then, happy kino.
Baker: Jim, it was such a pleasure corresponding with you about La haine, and I hope we can repeat the pleasure in the future! Thank you for the well wishes for my dad—all positive vibes are welcome. I feel similarly to you in wondering how the pandemic will be branded for historical consumption, but the numbers alone are harrowing and not something I hope will be easily dismissed. All the best to you through this season and the rest of this pandemic—we’ll be seeing you on Letterboxd. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
Richard: Jim, I’m afraid you’re probably right about the eventual historical legacy of Covid-19, at least if the Spanish flu pandemic from 1918-1920 is any indicator, but we can always hope otherwise. Anyhow thanks again for your virtual hospitality, and we’ll see you in the next reel (I won’t finish the quote because the rest of it is rude).
Jim: Collokino is taking a little break over the holidays, but will be back in January with some more brand-new guests discussing two classic films. Until then, happy hols to all.