Home Video Hovel- La Haine, by David Bax
Can a film be powerful and quaint at the same time? Matthieu Kassovitz’ La Haine, out now on Blu-ray from Criterion, is so entirely of 1995 in its aesthetics (handheld and grainy with heavy use of wide-angle lenses) that almost any 30 second chunk of it could be mistaken for a commercial for an apparel line you’d find archived on YouTube. Yet, taken as a whole, the film has the vivacity of an unaware tyro and is so honest and earnest about its themes and intentions, it can’t help but be impactful.
Our heroes, such as they are, are three men in their early twenties who live in a housing project on the outskirts of Paris. Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is Jewish, Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is black and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is Arab. All are young, French and broke. Another of their group was seriously injured in a recent riot. Vinz finds a gun left behind by the police in the melee and vows that if their friend dies from his wounds, he’ll use it to kill a cop. The bulk of the film follows a day or so in their lives and sees them travel into the city and often get into trouble. Some of that trouble they’ve asked for and some is thrust upon them. All the while, Hubert tries to temper Vinz’s anger while Saïd tries to decide where his allegiances lie.
In general, the movie plays like – and is – a simple and straightforward tale of morality. Despite successfully making us understand why people in these situations are tempted toward violence, Kassovitz is clearly on Hubert’s side. It’s harder for Vinz to remain righteous than for someone with a more comfortable life but, the director is saying, no less imperative.
As I mentioned, the film feels stylistically dated when viewed today. However, unlike some other relics of their eras, La Haine is not laughable or of reduced worth. Perhaps that’s because Kassovitz’ intensity is not forced or cynical. He tells his story with a passionate verve that is distinct and propulsive. He may be proselytizing but his intentions are good.
Yet that overall message encouraging hope is rattled drastically by the negativity of the film’s ending (which I won’t spoil here). After investing the whole film in these men and their struggle to make the right decisions, a last minute twist appears to suggest that hope is futile. It doesn’t matter if the authorities are at fault or the young men themselves, it’s simply too late to do anything about it.
Due to these developments late in the game, it’s hard to say that the film entirely works. Yet it remains a brisk and exciting viewing experience and worth owning and revisiting. That alone sets it apart from much of Kassovitz’ later output (like the dreadful psychological thriller Gothika). La Haine is, in many ways, a promising early effort from a director who never lived up to that promise.