Far from the tour de force treatments of similar subject matter often aspire to, La Haine is no less a poetic coup de maitre of filmmaking. Inspired by the mid 80s Paris demonstrations, footage of which is used to open the film, it required a little creative license of Kassovitz to fuel a meandering raison d’etre. Its ending allegedly borrowed from events occurring nearly a decade later after the protests in opening montage. Yet without making too much of disenfranchisement, relegating it instead to a motif rather than its core, la Haine allows other thematic hues to float in and out. It’s a ‘day in the life of’ affair, handled very much like Clerks and Do the Right Thing except the principal trio drift in and out of trouble as opposed to having drifters loiter around them. Unlike both aforementioned films, La Haine is not a prisoner of its locale—the trio spend a large portion of their day outside their element and the comical results are therefore amplified however much the film intends to stay serious. How serious? Police brutality, to keep things simple as possible.
Vinz (Cassel). Hubert (Kounde). Said (Taghmaoui). Three banlieue residents of different ethnic stocks. Jewish, African, and Arab respectively. The morning after the latest lethal crackdown that put a young Arab in critical condition, resulting also in the burning of Hubert’s boxing gym, Said goes to Vinz’ before they all reconvene. Vinz is brash, Hubert is stoic, and Said inhabits a middle ground. Theirs is a rapport not so much grounded in common interest, simply the solidarity stemming from an understanding of their relative inferiority to the dominant, ethnic French. And the systems said superiority has espoused. The only class division they recognize is that which a badge separates. In the ensuing chaos from the previous day, a cop’s gun is lost and allegedly picked up by a rioter. Hurting for cash and with plenty of time to kill, their existence is nothing out of the ordinary but it is inescapable to frame their existence vis-a-vis the riot police on alert nearby.
The film largely centers on their shiftless pursuits of pocket change and the resultant misadventures that mostly occur somewhere outside their stomping grounds. They get roughed up at one police station after they almost have a fight at an eccentric Parisian gangster’s apartment. They attempt to steal a car after the last train out of Paris leaves but end up loitering in a mall lobby. They run into Skinheads twice as the tables turn from one side’s favor to the other’s. Oh, and Said misses a date because of all this but since Vinz fucked up his haircut earlier maybe it was for the best. Although suspense is constantly sustained throughout, meaning the police are always a stone’s throw away, hilarious mishaps punctuate their aimless and derailed journey to get cash. It’s really a fish out of water comedy with sprinkles of a looming, deeper subject matter threatening to emerge at any moment. And this duality is presented adroitly.
Hostilities are largely bottled up and confined early on to confrontations with the project police diffusing a gathering on a rooftop replete with a hot dog stand, a living room set, and multi-ethnic cliques including an alpha Arab gang leader. Philippe Nahon shows up with an Arab cop to “speak” to these people, I presume. But the recurrent refrains of him selling out are a combination of funny and simplified, overused sentiment. This same cop understands his ability to reason with similar “Others” and it was all unfair for him to assume the burden of street treason in every encounter. Regardless.
With the exception of Said’s family, of whom only his sister is seen, we catch a glimpse of their home lives. This only advances one, maybe two points, I’ve felt; that both Vinz and Hubert behave the way they do all the time. This isn’t to discount external conditions having an effect shaping their temperaments—Hubert speaks of his desire to one day uproot himself to his mother—but their street personas and real ones aren’t starkly different as for either to pose as a facade. Yet, Vinz himself is preoccupied with making a name for himself throughout and it turns out the gun lost in the fracas was in his possession after all. This revelation propels tensions further considering his professed intentions of retaliating if Abdel dies in the hospital. The gun itself is a symbol of power or at least agency as we’ll see in the climax.
Anyway as the film prods it way through near bust-ups and run-ins that so far have only threatened to blow up into disaster for someone in the trio, surely what’s left in store for us will arrive in the very end. And it does, much more resoundingly than accidental necrophilia and burning pizzerias. When Abdel dies, Vinz doesn’t follow through with his fantasy. They all end up taking the first train back, and any earlier twist involving the car they tried to hotwire was also avoided. I kept thinking the drunk guy who showed up would tell them the car was his and they can have in a fit of philanthropic grief. The French know when to be subtle, Dieu merci. “So far so good,” Hubert says. But as they’re mere clicks from home, Vinz hands the gun over to Hubert in a redemptive overture, showing not just his resignation of not being a killer proving no fluke. But perhaps reason overcoming brutish ways—Hubert as the voice of reason and Vinz as wanton impulsiveness. As watchable Clerks and Do the Right Thing were on first viewing, La Haine can endure more viewings. Hate begets hate, but it’s all good.