On its 20th anniversary, La Haine – one of the most timeless and universal movies in history – is more relevant than ever.
Certain images are burned in the collective memory of film aficionados the world over, and the closing scene of La Haine (Hatred) is one of them: Inspector Notre Dame and Hubert, the banlieusard, each holding a loaded gun to the other’s temple. The camera fades into nothingness. A shot rings out. Silence. The film ends with a voiceover, “This is the story of a society falling apart”.
The often overused description of “cult film” is for once as accurate as it can possibly be. But La Haine is more than that, it is a snapshot of time, history, and humanity. When the movie was was first presented at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival – 20 years ago – it was a mirror of the underbelly of society, and it has lost nothing of its relevance today. If anything, it was a chillingly accurate premonition of the way certain aspects of society would perpetuate, and aggravate. In the post 9/11 and mid-economic crisis world of 2015, the chasm between the well-to-do and disenfranchised, between white and black, between privilege and deprivation, between state power and criminal energy is sharper than ever. Images of riots, born from social tension, spring to mind….. whether Paris a couple of decades ago or Baltimore last month. And in fact, the movie was based on the real life story of Makomé M’Bowolé, a 17 year old Zaïre national who was killed in police custody in Paris in 1993.
Social injustice aside, the film tells a beautiful story of friendship, loyalty, and hope across the manmade divides of religion and race, rooted in the shared experience of marginalism and existential fear. We are following 19 hours in the lives of Vinz, the angry young Jew (Vincent Cassel), Saïd the Maghrebinian (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Hubert, an Afro-French boxer, small time drug dealer, and the most mature of the three (Hubert Koundé). They hang out together, they get in the usual amount of trouble, and minor rival gang aggression is just business as usual. “Jusqu’ici, tout va bien” (“So far so good”) – one of the cult phrases of this film. But then, “….l’important n’est pas la chute, c’est l’atterrissage.” (“….the only thing that matters is how it all ends”). Their friend Ahmed dies in police custody, and Vinz is accidentally shot dead in a police confrontation by Inspector Notre Dame (Marc Duret) – and suddenly things spin out of control. Hubert, the anti-violent one, finds himself in a standoff with that cop… they are pointing guns at each other’s heads. The camera fades….. a shot is fired…. Who killed whom?
A dark, grungy, black and white film which starkly shows the rough edges of Parisian banlieue life in the projects, emotionally as well as architecturally, at a time when violent riots were happening almost daily in the French capital. Most of the filming was done in the grimy suburb of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, and the use of unstaged footage taken over a 10 year period prior to production powerfully adds to the documentary feel of the movie. Kassovitz, the production team and the actors moved to the projects for three months prior to the shooting as well as during actual filming to get an authentic sense of what it meant to be immersed in that environment.
Presented at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, La Haine received standing ovations from the public and unequivocal praise from the critics (“One of the most blisteringly effective pieces of urban cinema ever made” – Wendy Ide, The Times). It earned Mathieu Kassovitz a Best Director award and Hubert Koundé a Most Promising Actor César. Even the French government took note: then Prime Minister Alain Juppé commissioned a special screening of the film for the cabinet, which ministers were required to attend. A spokesman for the Prime Minister said that, despite resenting some of the anti-police themes present in the film, Juppé found La Haine to be “a beautiful work of cinematographic art that can make us more aware of certain realities.” Empire magazine ranked it #32 among “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema“, and IMBD, the Bible of all things cinema worldwide, rates it the third best French movie of the past 20 years. The only ones who took exception were the police on duty in Cannes, collectively turning their backs on Kassovitz and his crew in protest of the film’s perceived anti-police polemic – and of course the old nemesis to freedom and tolerance in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the Front National, who called for “these yobs to be sent to jail”……
Was La Haine an eerily predictive sign of the times to come?
20 years on, the world is a far scarier, darker, more violent place, especially for those who live in precarious circumstances, whether they were born into them and fail to extricate themselves, or their lives fell apart somewhere along the lines and that kind of life is their only choice. So for many years the public called for a sequel to La Haine but Mathieu Kassovitz would have none of it. Describing La Haine as a “curse”, he steadfastly rejected a sequel.
But the events in the wake of the recent Charlie Hebdo terror attacks – which ultimately are closely linked with the tensions in the poor suburbs – have softened his stance to an extent, and he recently stated that now is the time to do La Haine 2.
An excellent, much-needed move, as cinema is so often the reflection of society, a storytelling vehicle of the things everyone knows and no one dares to speak up on. But where would he begin? Who survived that final gun shot? Hubert, the guy totally opposed to violence whose blood boils nevertheless at the social injustice he witnesses day in and day out and which peaks as his friend is “accidentally” killed? Or Inspector Notre Dame, who may be a cop but at the end of the day is maybe just another guy with a wife and kids at home? We don’t know, the original movie doesn’t tell us, it leaves it up to our imagination.
We do have a preference though. So many films out there tell the story of the underprivileged, the marginalized, the ones who have nothing to lose. It would be refreshing to see the suite of events through the so-called law-enforcer’s eyes. If it was Inspector Notre Dame who pulled the trigger first…. what motivated him? How does he explain his action, what does it do to his mind and conscience? Is there a disparity between his professional and his moral compass? Is he proud to have “served” his community by taking out an “element” or does he feel remorse that he killed not one but two people? Maybe he has a cousin who grew up in the projects, or his best friend was killed by a gang member? Is there an investigation, and what’s the outcome – justice or cover-up? What does he have to lose, if anything? And this is where Mathieu Kassovitz’ great chance lies in making another spectacular film, based on rarely explored psychological insights into the mind of a (possibly) bad cop.
Marc Duret, whose poignant interpretation of Inspector Notre Dame – a wanna-be tough guy with a nervous edge of vulnerability – still haunts us 20 years later, thinks that a sequel to La Haine, from whichever angle it may be told, is even more pertinent in 2015 than it was 20 years ago. “Mathieu Kassovitz’ film was incredibly visionary, a loud call to action at a time when we still had a chance, as a society, to turn a corner, to stretch out a hand, to overcome differences, to stand up for each other, just like Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert did in their own microcosmos. We collectively missed that chance, and the culprit is largely political and economic self-interest. In my opinion, we need a strong and powerful artistic message that allows us to see the internal struggle of a “guy in charge”, like the cop, to align what he just did with human and moral values, his own and those of society. Such a story would be a great vehicle to make the public understand that there are two sides of the story.”
It may be hard to sympathise with the side of the law enforcers as they seem to be the ones who can twist facts to their advantage. Or can they? Recent events, like the ones in Baltimore, suggest otherwise, as increasingly they are called to accountability. And without venturing into political territory, without defending anyone who overplayed their hand and their authority, the sequel as told from the (surviving) inspector’s perspective would make a powerful statement, and contribution to public education and discussion. So what better time indeed than now, Mr. Kassovitz?
Natja Igney is a senior global communications strategist with 1021 Global Communications Consulting. She has a particular interest in theatre and filmmaking.
Lead image via La Haine promotional material; final scene still via YouTube