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

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.

RATING 8 / 10