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Lights Off: How La Haine Destroyed The Picture Of Postcard Paris
James Balmont , September 18th, 2020 09:00

Mathieu Kassovitz's incendiary 1995 film La Haine lit our idealised view of Paris on fire – and remains just as corrosive 25 years on, finds James Balmont

From the cobbled streets of the Montmartre to the cafe culture of the Marais – Paris, city of gastronomic splendour and postcards of UNESCO-protected skylines, is the most romantic on Earth.

A city of culture, style and decadence, its mythological beauty and charm has been reflected through art, literature, and film since the days of Hemmingway and Fitzgerald. In cinema, the stereotype has been carried from romance dramas of the 1930s like I Met Him In Paris, through the Golden Age of cinema via Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, from the nouvelle vague of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, to Moulin Rouge!, Before Sunset and Midnight In Paris. In the Francophone language of love, "Paris, je t' aime" has been the dominant view since the dawn of cinema.

In 1995, La Haine violently destroyed that image of Paris with a hate-fuelled vision of the city, depicting it as a crime-ridden dystopia riddled with poverty, racial conflict and police brutality. As Matthieu Kassovitz's transgressive masterpiece turns 25 with a high-definition re-release, it’s high time to explore how La Haine tore up the postcard picture of the city and replaced it with something that, in 2020, feels uncomfortably authentic.

Inspired by the real-life shooting of 17-year-old Zairian boy Makome M'Bowole in Paris in 1993, La Haine follows three angry youths living in the city's run-down banlieue projects in the hours following the brutal beating of an Arabic child while under police custody. With his young friend in a coma, Jewish hoodlum Vincent fantasises about taking revenge on a policeman using a gun he stole during one of the violent clashes in the much-publicised aftermath. With Arabic friend Said and Black boxer Hubert at his side, a rollercoaster 24 hours finds the film's leads exploring petty crime, provocation and liberty as they navigate a world reduced to rubble by conflict and injustice.

La Haine caused significant impact upon release, winning Kassovitz the prestigious Best Director award at Cannes but also finding him shunned by festival's police escorts – who turned their backs on the film crew in protest against their portrayal. French Prime Minister Alain Juppé resented some of the themes, but he also held a compulsory screening of the film for members of the cabinet, citing it as a cultural text to be learned from. It took home over $15 million against its $2.5 million budget, and made a star of lead actor Vincent Cassel.

This was a film that spurned superficial portrayals of the French capital, in favour of something that cut deep into the heart of Paris' identity. Compare it to Amélie, an international box office sensation set in the same city, released six years later. With bright, saturated colours, cartoonish stereotypes and a Little Red Riding Hood-like protagonist, Amélie is, in the words of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, "nostalgia for the France of my childhood"; a postcard depiction of the city as painted by the mind of an innocent. A narrative scavenger hunt across the brasseries of Pigalle, the Canal St. Martin and the Sacré-Cœur, its fantastical exaggeration is amplified further by the fact that La Haine director Kassovitz plays the film's charming love interest.

But in terms of composition, La Haine isn't so different to Amélie. Its characters are expressive, shot in vivid close-ups, and they frequently speak directly to the camera (such as when Vincent imitates Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle in his bedroom mirror), almost breaking the fourth wall a la Audrey Tautou's childlike substitute. The wide-angle cinematography is similarly striking, only eschewing the rich, green vistas of Amélie in favour of desolate shopping mall car parks, deserted train stations and dark underpasses.

Paris, in Amélie, is a never-ending playground, soundtracked by accordions and piano ditties. But when the characters of La Haine journey into the city centre and miss their last train home after being arrested for hash possession, it becomes a gauntlet of oppression, a hellish purgatory of violence full of constant reminders that they are not welcome.

La Haine has no love for this city. Even in an iconic shot of the three leads standing on a balcony overlooking the rue de Rennes, the background is obscured by the blur of a deep focus lens, alienating the trio from their surroundings. The establishing shots we do get are of the dusty environs of the banlieue; instead of classical architecture and market stalls, it's all concrete rubble and boarded-up shops. There are no shots of the Louvre, the Notre Dame, or the Arc de Triomphe – the only architectural divinities of La Haine are its behemothic tower blocks.

The world of La Haine feels like an apocalypse. And as the film continually warns, this is our future if we do not take action to rectify society's imbalances. Through subtle parallels to science fiction movies, this message is amplified to significant effect.

One of the film's most impressive shots finds our troubled trio perched on concrete bollards in front of a graffiti-strewn, Brutalist pyramid ("We're the future", reads one of the tags). For the reverse shot, the clan are shown gazing out across what could easily be mistaken for a desert from Dune or Mad Max; the vegetation-starved skyline obscured by the rugged, grey monolith of one of the projects' towers.

A billboard later depicts the Earth floating in space with the subtitle "The world is yours", mirroring the interplanetary vacations advertised in Total Recall, while also recalling the hyperbolic, Depression-era promotions of "the American Dream". And in an early scene that finds a local community gathering on a tower block rooftop, the police invade from the streets below, evoking the zombie siege of a supermarket rooftop in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead.

Science fiction stories resonate through their reflections of societal issues (from consumer culture in Total Recall to the AIDS crisis in all manner of zombie movies), but La Haine's message goes a step beyond. Opening with stock footage of violent street protests, and filmed entirely in black and white, it offers a monochrome conflict rooted firmly in reality, where repressed citizens are at the mercy of the "peacekeepers" in control.

The film's most disturbing scene is the brutal police interrogation of Said and Hubert at the end of the second act. After poking their eyes and goading them to seize a weapon to retaliate, the arresting officer choke-holds his detainees, trying to force a confession. With the wrongful killing of George Floyd still fresh in the minds of viewers, this scene makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing in 2020.

In France, societal unease continues to dominate the headlines today. The National Rally (formerly National Front), long known as the party of Holocaust denial, xenophobia and deportation, retained 840 council seats in the July 2020 municipal elections, with leader Marine Le Pen on course to be the primary contester of Macron's presidency at the 2022 elections. Violent clashes over economic reform have been publicised by international media as recently as September 12th: “French police use teargas at gilets jaunes protest in Paris”, reads The Guardian's latest headline.

Further afield, on September 7th in Egypt, Islam Al-Ostraly, a 26-year-old bird shop owner, was tortured to death in police custody for failing to bribe a police officer. In October, at the BFI London Film Festival, Ken Fero's unflinching documentary Ultraviolence will utilise archival footage to question why there have been over 2000 deaths in police custody in the UK since 1969. "The police have not stopped killing," the trailer states, in bold, black and white text. "This is a film the police will not want you to see."

With its new 4K restoration, La Haine's frightful vision of the future feels distinctly contemporary, even 25 years on. And though its stunning cinematography is utterly deserving of this remaster, the re-release raises more questions in 2020 than it does answers. Kassovitz and his creative team have proved prophetic in their harrowing vision of dystopian Paris – so why has the slow crumble of society not been curbed?

"Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper?" goes a recurring quote in La Haine. "On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far, so good."

Evidently, in 2020, we're still in free fall.