(WARNING: More than mild spoilers for La Haine.)
“Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: ‘So far, so good. So far, so good. So far, so good.’ How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”
— Hubert, La Haine
The 10th grade camping trip to the High Sierra mountains is probably not what you expected me to talk about when you clicked on this article. But rest assured, it happens to be surprisingly relevant. Over the course of the four days we spent in Sequoia National Forest, one thing kept being brought up in conversation. That thing, surprisingly enough, was the 1995 French crime drama La Haine. Now, normally I’m not one to be greatly intrigued by a movie someone mentions, but it was discussed with such reverence on the trip that I told myself I needed to check it out. And I can say with certainty that I’m glad I did.
La Haine, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, is a poignant and compelling analysis of French society in the 1990s. Opening on a newsreel covering a series of riots, the film explores several ideas relating to the violence permeating 1995 France, especially gun violence and police brutality. The story stars characters named for the actors who play them: Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Hubert (Hubert Koundé), three friends of Abdel (Abdel Ahmed Ghili), a man injured by police during the aforementioned riots. The film follows the three over the next twenty-four hours as they go about their day under frequent police observation while Abdel is in intensive care.
La Haine truly shines in its writing. The themes of the film are perfectly reflected in the personalities of its characters, with the three main characters all presenting both different and similar perspectives on the previously mentioned issues of gun violence and police brutality: Vinz despises the police, and after obtaining a pistol lost by an officer in the riots, vows to use it on a police officer in the event that Abdel dies while in the hospital. Hubert, while sharing Vinz’s enmity for France’s law enforcement, does not want to risk provoking the police, and as such disapproves of Vinz’s plan. Saïd is caught in the middle of the growing tension between Vinz and Hubert, and just wants things to go back to normal.
Gun violence is further explored through the actions of the film’s characters. About mid-way through the movie, the three go to see a cocaine addict known as Astérix, who owes Saïd money. While starting out friendly, the meeting quickly takes a violent turn when Astérix tries to force Vinz to play Russian Roulette with him. This is Vinz’s first warning that firearms should not be taken so lightly. Later in the film, Saïd and Hubert are assaulted by a gang, whom they had insulted from a rooftop in the previous scene. Vinz arrives in the middle of the conflict and uses his pistol to scare the gang away. After a short chase, Vinz captures one of the gang members and holds him at gunpoint, planning to kill him for attacking his friends. This plan does not come to fruition however, as Hubert’s strategic goading forces Vinz to realize that the violent and aggressive persona he had been touting throughout the film is not who he truly is. Unable to bring himself to pull the trigger, Vinz lets the gang member run off. Following this event, Vinz comes to the conclusion that he should not be responsible for owning a dangerous weapon, and offers the pistol to Hubert, who reluctantly takes it.
The issue of police brutality is also explored in the film, with the characters consistently being on its receiving end. After leaving the apartment building that Astérix lives in, Saïd, Vinz, and Hubert are apprehended by undercover police. While Vinz manages to escape, Saïd and Hubert are arrested. While in police custody, the two are violently beaten and verbally abused, and end up being locked up until late into the night, forcing them to miss the train home and spend the night out on the streets. Some time later, after disrupting a high-society art gallery and promptly being kicked out, the three wander around a mall for a time before encountering a TV with a news broadcast confirming that Abdel had succumbed to his injuries—ones given to him by police during the riots—and died while in the hospital. This moment is given special attention, with Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert sitting in front of the television in silence, the latter two mourning the death of their friend, and Vinz now filled with renewed determination. The three then go to the roof of a building, where Saïd insults police officers and the aforementioned gang members. While there, Hubert recounts a story to Vinz about a man who falls off of a skyscraper, the same story that he narrates before the opening credits of the film. This story is what ends up tying La Haine together by the film’s conclusion, with it being put into a new perspective in the final scene. Alas, for the sake of not completely spoiling the film in this review, you’ll have to watch said ending scene—and the rest of the film, of course—yourself.
Alongside the incredible care given to its writing, La Haine’s other aspects are not neglected in the slightest. The film showcases masterful cinematography, employing minimal cuts within a single scene, instead using unconventional camera angles along with panning and trucking camera movements that allow the viewer to take in the setting in its entirety. This, combined with the incredible acting and candid dialogue, creates a very raw and realistic atmosphere for the film, which is made all the more appropriate by its just as raw script.
If it has somehow not been made clear throughout this review, I highly recommend checking La Haine out. The entire English subtitled film is available on YouTube, though you may consider renting the film on Amazon Prime if you want slightly higher quality subtitles.