It’s not how you fall, it’s how you land.
The now clichéd but nonetheless important line that everyone who watches La Haine is left to ponder. Hubert’s allegorical story of a man falling off a high-rise building that underpins the meaning of this classic seems bleak, but then it needs to be; it is the most memorable and symbolic moment of a film that deliberately sets out to showcase the misery of life in the forgotten suburbs of Paris. It could be mistaken for a snapshot of an extraordinary day in the midst of the riots that shook the French capital in the 1990s, but that would be to miss the point of a film that so effectively brought poverty and societal injustice to the forefront of public conversation.
The film’s title comes from one of its lines, ‘la haine attire la haine – hate breeds hate’, said in response to a call for violent action during the fictional riots that embroil the suburb inhabited by the film’s three protagonists. Vinz is a non-practising Jew, (in an early scene his grandma castigates him for not going to the synagogue) who fancies himself as a gangster, and dreams of taking revenge on a police officer for their mistreatment of his friend Abdel, who is in a critical condition in hospital and whose state is the reason for the riots that define the film. Saïd is his easy-going Maghrebin (North African) friend, and Hubert, a black boxer, completes the gang. Hubert’s anger at the system has turned to despair as the boxing gym he fought so hard to get funding for has been ruined by the rioters. These three protagonists effectively symbolise the term ‘black-blanc-beur’ (black-white-arab), a play on the traditional French tricolore that was later used to champion France’s victory of the 1998 World Cup as a host nation. Their triumph was largely down to the diversity of their squad, with many having proud African heritage, none more so than the captain and star player Zinedine Zidane whose parents are both Algerian. ‘Beur’ is a syllabic inversion of ‘arabe’, an example of ‘verlan’, a type of urban French slang frequently used by the characters throughout the film.
The majority of La Haine takes place in the banlieue, and a lot of the film’s realism is achieved through the use of the real banlieue Chanteloup-Les-Vignes as the film’s setting. There are nonetheless some recognisable picture-postcard shots of central Paris, most notably when the three protagonists get the train into the city and look down from the roof of the iconic Galeries Lafayette onto Boulevard Montparnasse. The word banlieue is literally translated as suburb in English but has a far more complicated meaning, referring to areas on the fringes of major French cities like Paris and Marseille that are filled with ‘HLM’ (blocks of rent-controlled housing; council estates are the UK’s most similar concept). Small communes like the one in which the film is set are known as ‘ZUP’, ‘priority urbanisation zones’, which were planned and built in the decades after the Second World War. The majority of these artificial communities are rife with poverty and its ensuing social problems, severely lacking infrastructure and poorly integrated with the rest of French society, leading to conflict between their inhabitants and the police when communication breaks down, as seen regularly in the film. One of the best lines of an excellent script comes when the gang challenge a policeman from the estate who they see as betraying them through his job; he tells them ‘I’m just here to protect you’, to which they respond ‘Yes, but who protects us from you?’
While technically fictional, the use of real riot footage in the opening credits along with the similarity of the incident with Abdel to many contemporary cases of police misconduct makes this a vital piece of contemporary social criticism. The film is mainly inspired by the case of the 17-year-old Congolese Makomé M’Bowolé, who was shot in the head by a policeman during interrogation, having been detained on suspicion of stealing cigarettes. This was one of three isolated incidents involving the killing of unarmed young people by police officers that led to many riots in Paris and surrounding areas. The hard-hitting criticism of French society delivered by the film’s director, Mathieu Kassovitz, sparked a tirade from Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the Front National, France’s controversial right-wing party, who said ‘Do these yobs have la haine? Send them to jail.’. Kassovitz even received a letter from the President Jacques Chirac thanking him for the film’s uncompromising portrayal of a society in turmoil; it is telling that the Prime Minister at the time, Alain Juppé, had the film screened to government officials, a testimony to the film’s success in opening up a dialogue between the political classes and the long-neglected working classes banished to the banlieue.
The film’s director is himself an example of the diversity celebrated in the film; his mother is a French Roman Catholic and his father a Hungarian Jew (who in fact plays an art gallery organiser in the latter stages of the film). Having been awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in the year of the film’s release, Kassovitz said ‘I don’t know if it’s really important, or intelligent even, when people say to me I’m a white Spike Lee, because they said to Spike Lee you’re a black Woody Allen.’
For me, what makes La Haine truly exceptional is its combination of the serious and the light-hearted; its merit lies as much in its blunt tackling of police brutality and wider social inequality in France as it does in its relatable and funny characters.