Film Club / If Only We Could Make Peace With Our Demons

La HaineLa Haine 
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz


I always think of La Haine as the ultimate Media Studies film. I think that’s mostly because the first time I saw it was doing A Level Media Studies (hello Mr Farrow and Mr Joyce if you’re reading this!). 

It’s French. It’s in black and white. It’s about urban youth. And police riots. There’s violence. And Hip-Hop. It’s kinda about race (maybe?). Please you know – lots of very dynamic camera work. Small touches of surrealism (“I saw a cow.”) And it all seems very meaningful in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on.

I mean – if it didn’t exist then someone would have had to invent it. 

(Although wait – I guess someone did). 

Rewatching it last night I was surprised by how much of it I didn’t remember. In fact the only bits I did recall were the insets with the time and the story about the guy falling out the building (“so far so good” etc) and oh the totally impossible shot when the camera drops out of the window and somehow… floats away (wtf!?! Although it’s weird watching it now because thanks to drones it seems less impossible – which is stupid I know but don’t blame me – blame my brain).

Most of the other bits I didn’t remember because well – it’s kinda boring isn’t it? (Although I will admit – it does all look very very nice). 

The whole of La Haine feels like a joke that’s gone all shaggy dog (“A Jew, A Black Guy and An Arab walk into Paris”). I read a thing that said that at the time La Haine came out they said that Mathieu Kassovitz was going to be the new Spike Lee which is a very telling comparison and probably not as flattering as it’s meant to be. Because much like Do The Right Thing La Haine manages to make a whole lot of noise and have lots of characters say so many things without actually managing to make any real kinda salient point at all. I mean lots of people went to go and see La Haine and it was a massive success and critically acclaimed and all the rest of it but erm – what’s the take away? Hatred leads to hatred? Bad cops are bad but some are trying their best? Something about shitting and freezing to death? Are you talking to me? I said – are you talking to me?

Speaking personally there is a kick watching La Haine and seeing the kind of world I grew up in being (ha) represented on the big screen (albeit in a French kinda way). I spent a lot of my misspent youth hanging out on council estates and walking around doing nothing through vast stretches of concrete constantly thinking to myself “wow – this would make a really cool film.” But the part of the La Haine that sticks in my head the most is when our three heroes gatecrash the fancy art gallery – which to this audience member feels like a microcosm of the movie itself. You can feel the push pull of the fancy art gallery patrons as they observe these three guys who don’t belong – “Oh my word. They’re so uncloth. But they’re so exciting and fascinating!” Yeah they’re knocking things over and causing a scene – but isn’t causing a scene what art is all about? And yeah obviously it’s a bad idea to have them in such fancy surroundings but then of course the obvious solution is to find some fancy actors and get someone good to make a film and you can get the experience without the danger. 

“Get out the car! This ain’t Thoiry” hits differently when you realise that actually the whole film is a safari. Jurassic Park but with poor people instead of dinosaurs. And – thank God – the poor people can’t escape. 

You have to admit it’s difficult to throw the lives of working class youth on to the screen. First of all the challenge is trying to give voice to people who almost by definition are excluded from traditional communications channels. Secondly if they did have the money and access to make a movie themselves then that would already give them significant advantages over the people they would be telling the story about. Lastly of course people find it hard to relate to these stories and so, as Joel says it becomes a sort of zoo experience.

But that doesn’t mean writers shouldn’t try and that they are not entitled to. Certainly in South London, giant housing estates aren’t “the other side of the tracks” but a huge part of the skyline. To really live in London means living within a few meters of hundreds of other people and spending 90% of the time pretending they aren’t there. But while I recognise the architecture having that shared experience doesn’t mean I know what it’s like to get frisked randomly on the street by the police, or to regularly miss meals or know what it’s like to be properly poor. But La Haine is not about poverty or starvation or even the police really, its just taking the reverse view of scenes we have all seen on many occasions in London and other European cities where young poor people are regarded as an undesirable nuisance, shows them being undesirable and annoying and makes you sympathetic. 

In terms of sympathising it helps that the actors are all amazing. Vincent Cassel in particular is mesmerising in this movie to such an extent that all the other stuff feels like a distraction from him and Hubert and Saïd doing their thing. If they were suddenly on the Nostromo it would not have made it any more or less cool. Ok it would have been a bit cooler, but unnecessary, because the movie is already stressful enough. 

Of course since La Haine’s release The Wire has done this better, but it’s still the case that almost every cop show sees young working aimless working class men as pitiless and unpredictable predators, rather than the victims of systematic oppression. But while the oppression is right up there on screen La Haine sidesteps the low energy misery of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh and, rather than showing characters crushed under the burdens of the system, uses that alienation to cast them as heroic survivors in hostile enemy territory. Not heroic because they are brave or clever or with noble motivations or even that they are particularly unlucky, but because for them life is an assault course of constant aggravation. By setting the camera at street level the film takes fairly boring material and turns these three boys mooching around into and epic depiction of the class struggle. 

As I have pointed out on previous adventures it’s very hard to find films with actual socialist principles expressed in them. Of course there are hundreds of films which are dissatisfied with the Government, and just as many where large corporations or “greed” or materialism are criticised or shown to be evil. And of course sooo many films are about alienation and despair. But then the critique breaks down, and the horizon of other possibilities is closed because there is resolution or the bad guy/thing is vanquished. 

Often this is linked to the characters story arc as it’s much easier to show a character making positive choices than a whole society. Or the film shows that the evil corporation/government/wizard are bad apples in an otherwise orderly and benevolent system and once good has triumphed the status quo will return. 

Another common theme is that despair and unhappiness are purely psychological conditions and that if only we could make peace with our demons then we can move on with our lives, form a heteronormative relationship, get a job and find happiness. Again this is very easy to show in a movie as characters making poor life choices trace this back to a darker and more cinematically interesting time in their past. But the resultant message is that if only we all had the right zen/CEO mindset we could all achieve our (pre-approved) dreams, which seems like the biggest delusion of all. 

These ideas of returning to an ideal status quo of stability or personal growth accept the premise that society as it stands is now broadly fine and all that is required for justice and peace to be realised is for good people to do the right thing. Indeed watching Black Widow this weekend, this is precisely the premise that one can atone for past murders with [checks notes] considerably more murder. What’s interesting about the Avengers movies is that for justice and peace to prevail the characters have to invent an army of AI powered robots/ harness the greatest power in the universe/ develop spider-based abilities,m. Now I for one hail our new AI powered robot masters but it is kind of a contradiction. 

Which is why La Haine is great because there is very little in the way of character development, and the film is very clear that most cops are bastards and that the problem is absolutely society itself which is in free fall. Perhaps it could be more artful about its arguments but it lays out a very clear manifesto in a way you rarely get from movies, even ones that are supposed to be political. Other films will make a powerful case for political action on a particular issues but La Haine’s diagnosis is that we need a to completely rethink social structures, and demonstrates how far that rethinking is beyond the cultured bourgeoisie, the nice guy cops, and politicians nice or otherwise. All they can do, at best, is look on in horror at the brutality of the machine as in grinds up a new generation. 

The only other film I can think of that is as powerful in terms of this sort of statement is In the Name of the Father, not just because it exposes the injustice at the heart of Britain’s attack on the Irish people, but also the choices it forces the different parties to make. The moment where the IRA lieutenant quotes the address of the mother of a gangster to get his way and simultaneously demonstrating that peace and love are a poor match for incredible violence, puts a fairly liberal films into an interesting position in terms of good guys and bad guys.  Similarly Hubert moves from peacemaker to credibly threatening a cop with a gun within a matter of hours and the cycle of the film is complete. In 1995 people were still going on about non-violent protest like it was a useful way to achieve political change and La Haine just has absolutely none of it. 

This post was created by our Film Club email list.
If you’d like to join the conversation send an email marked “Film Club” to here.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s