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February 28, 2014 4:25 PM Weekend Film Recommendation: La Haine

By Johann Koehler

C’est l’histoire d’un homme qui tombe d’un immeuble de cinquante étages. Le mec, au fur et à mesure de sa chute se répète sans cesse pour se rassurer : jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien.

Mais l’important c’est pas la chute, c’est l’atterrissage.

This week’s film recommendation is often considered one of the finest that independent French cinema has to offer: Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995). It’s the story of a man who falls fifty storeys down a high-rise. While falling, he reassures himself by repeating the same words: so far everything’s ok, so far everything’s ok, so far, everything’s ok. But the important thing isn’t the fall. It’s the landing.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 02.18.40

The backdrop to the film is a riot that has thrown Paris into tumult, and a young man named Abdel into a coma from a violent altercation with the police. While we never meet Abdel, his story is told for us over the course of a single day by his three friends who live in the Parisian banlieues. Vinz is a Jew with an impetuous streak, played by a young pre-Hollywood Vincent Cassel; Saïd is an Arab with a flair for comedy, and is played by Saïd Taghmaoui, also before his own successful - albeit less illustrious - career kicked off; and Hub, played by Hubert Koundé, is a taciturn black former owner of a boxing gym that was burned down during the riots. During the confusion of the riots, Vinz has picked up a gun left by a policeman and resolves to use it to exact revenge on the cops in the event that Abdel dies.

The three characters drift listlessly through the Parisian landscape, searching for something to do. They have no jobs, no aspirations, and no social network beyond one another. Even the neighborhood they come from is a barren wasteland an hour away from downtown central Paris. They feel disconnected, and they don’t seem to care about it. Instead, they try desperately to eke out some excitement from their day, whether by finding a rooftop party worth attending, or by crashing an art gallery reception, or by embroiling themselves in conflict with either the local skinheads or the cops. But the film doesn’t so much glide from scene to scene as it scrapes your nerves back and forth across broken glass. While you know the characters are trying to achieve little more than ‘getting by’, you also know that l’important c’est pas la chute, c’est l’atterrissage.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 02.21.05

The metaphor of the film, of the man falling fifty storeys, reappears frequently. It isn’t entirely clear until the ending - and even then, interpretations can still vary - whether the falling ‘man’ represents the three protagonists or French society. For my money, it represents Vinz, whose pride inexorably leads him into trouble, but watch the film and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

While the decision to use black and white was probably driven by budgetary constraints, Kassovitz does some great work with the camera, and the washed out colors in fact add to the effect of the prevailing sterility of the environment. The dialogue is outstanding, and even in translation La Haine captures the syncopation and lyricism of lower class urban French patois. The characters are all - even the cops - presented both sympathetically and unsympathetically, thanks to the superb acting on all fronts. A standout scene in particular is ‘The Grunwalski Monologue,’ about… well, no one really knows what it’s about, but I’ve embedded it below in the hopes of getting you hooked.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.

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