Up Close and Very Personal: Matthieu Kassovitz's Brilliant 'La Haine'

While La Haine can become extremely referential, it also displays an inventive use of surrealism and dark comedy that outmatches its darkness.

La Haine

Director: Matthieu Kassovitz
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, Hubert Koundé
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-05-08

Unlike most films of the '90s, Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine remains a timeless snapshot of a transitory decade that forever transformed world history. Set in the poverty-ridden housing projects of Paris, the film has us follow three of its inhabitants during the course of a day.

Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is a Jew who lives with his grandmother and sister, and spends the days away dreaming of how to murder a cop (his impression of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver is both hilarious and chilling). His friend Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is a young Arab who seems to be trying to find his place in the world, his personality a construction -- and often a reproduction -- based on those around him. Their friend Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is a French-African boxer, who is trying hard to leave the projects behind and start anew somewhere else.

The lives of these three friends take an unexpected twist when Abdel (Abdel Ahmed Ghili), one of their neighbors, is brutally beaten by the police, leading to a series of riots that alter their limited worldviews. In the aftermath of the riots, Vinz finds a gun which he stores, promising himself he will use it to kill a cop if Abdel dies in the hospital. The film then, takes on a quixotic structure, as the three young men roam the streets of Paris, running into strange characters that seem to reassure them that things will only get worse.

La Haine could’ve easily become a morality tale, and considering how its three main characters are all members of racial minorities, one of the film’s greatest surprises is seeing how it bypasses any predictable notions and stays away from passing easy judgment onto its characters. Instead of using the three young men as examples or archetypes, writer/director Kassovitz is merely acknowledging that France had become a melting pot of races, cultures and sociopolitical beliefs. His movie isn’t introducing these people to France, it’s reminding them that these people are France.

Kassovitz was 27 when he directed La Haine, and you can feel the vibrant passion with which every scene and every line in the screenplay were conceived. The story, after all, happened to be very personal to Kassovitz, since it was based on the real life murder of Makomé Bowole, a Zairian immigrant who was brutally murdered by Parisian police officers in 1993. Kassovitz knew people in the projects where Bowole lived, and decided that he wanted to bring this world to the public view. Realizing how some people only knew these places as corrupted ghettos because of the influence of the conservative media, Kassovitz thought that cinema would be the most efficient way to bring these issues to everyone’s attention.

“Cinema in France is very personal” says the director in one of the documentaries featured in this Blu-ray edition, and as such, he wanted to be one of the first French filmmakers to make something that tackled social issues without forgetting about cinema’s value as entertainment. He deftly succeeded in both accounts, given that watching La Haine is harrowing because of its topics and thrilling because of the way in which the medium is used to tell a story.

It not only features magnificent performances by the entire cast (Cassel is particularly impressive), it also happens to be one of the most visually inventive and influential films, most people haven’t really seen. Its stunning black and white cinematography achieves the violent beauty that demands our attention while pleasuring our senses. While the movie can become extremely referential (it’s impossible to watch it and not think of Martin Scorsese's work, or Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing), it also displays an inventive use of surrealism and dark comedy. Kassovitz, after all, doesn’t seem as interested in getting a message across as he is in trying to understand what gives these people their essence.

La Haine is never accusatory or stereotypical, instead within its conception of modern life as pure hell, it also reminds us that life can contain moments of utter beauty. It's an angry, demanding film, that nevertheless refreshes us and can even inspire us. Almost 20 years after its release, few films have touched social issues with the fearlessness and humanity of Kassovitz’s masterpiece.

This high definition update once again reminds us why The Criterion Collection might just be the most important home media distributor in the world. The film has been converted to HD with breathtaking results and the roster of extras included might just turn this into the ultimate edition of the film. Film lovers will be delighted with an introduction to the film made by Jodie Foster, the Francophile actress who speaks with utmost passion about how happy she was to bring the movie to the United States. Watching the spark in her eye as she recounts her first experience with the film is magical. Fans of technical processes will be delighted with the inclusion of outtakes and and a superb featurette on how one of the film’s most iconic scenes was shot.

Also included is a documentary which concentrates on housing projects and their effect in modern European society, as well as a thorough making-of feature which includes interviews with the cast and crew. Watching Kassovitz’s surprise and joy upon receiving the Best Director award in Cannes has a bittersweet taste, considering how serious and demanding he seems in modern interviews. The arrogance he displays in 1995, is now replaced by a deep seated disappointment.

In one of the vintage interviews, one of the actors is asked whether he thinks the movie will change the world, he responds that he knows it won’t. Kassovitz is seated next to him and for a moment it seems that he’s shocked by this response. He wanted his work to have an effect, but the mixed results placed him in the same limbo his characters inhabit.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.