‘WEEPING AND A-WAILIN’
La Haine, true to its monochromatic colouring, does away with Ly-Hugo’s plant analogy and puts the sentiment in black and white: ‘la haine attire la haine,’ says one of its protagonists, Hubert. Hate breeds hate.
While both La Haine and Les Misérables focus on simmering tension that spills into chaos over the course of roughly a day, they are tonally very different. Les Misérables breaks ranks and gives us the banlieues through the unseemly view of corrupt and overwhelmed police; La Haine sticks loyally with its three wide boy heroes.
Vinz, described at one point as ‘Half Moses, half Mickey Mouse’, is a hothead obsessed with a Smith & Wesson he found during a riot. Hubert, a black boxer first glimpsed thrashing a punch bag, is more ruminative, while Said is an Arab joker who talks a mile a minute in verlan (French slang that involves inverting syllables in words.) The trio can’t keep still, or quiet, and their anxious energy is such that the film doesn’t require a plot to keep relentlessly pitching forward.
Composed of vignettes – and, as mentioned, punctuated by that ticking clock – La Haine’s fragmented structure mirrors the fractious and aimless days of life on the edge (of a city, and of danger). The film is bookended by a non-joke-cum-metaphor about a guy falling off a skyscraper: falling past each floor, people hear him say, ‘So far, so good… so far, so good…’ Brutal impact is imminent.
When all your thought and energy goes into daily survival – into the so-far-so-good — there is very little time for anything else; certainly no room for grand, overarching narratives.
The idea of social mobility, for instance, is a hilarious myth when you’re sitting on a concrete bollard in front of graffiti-spattered garages, nudging used syringes around with your foot, like Hubert in one scene; Kassovitz makes sure ‘L’avenir, c’est nous’ / ‘We are the future’ is clearly visible scrawled on the garage above his head. It’s a glimpse of a technicolour world a lot more fantastical than Oz for three boys destined to remain in the grave monotone of Kansas (though, Dorothy at least had a dog and a bicycle.) Twice during the course of the film, the trio pass a billboard reading ‘Le monde est à vous’ / ‘The world is yours’, a message that seems to mock them.
Through all this nihilism, Kassovitz never loses sight of humanity; rather, he demonstrates time and again how the system sucks all meaning from a life while expecting compliance. Vinz keeps seeing a cow wandering about the streets; whether it’s real or hallucinated is never explained, and nor does it need to be. Such chaos comes with the territory.
The most iconic display of meaninglessness-as-message comes from a cameo of an old man in a public bathroom. In a monologue (the longest time in the film given over to a single, uninterrupted voice) this random man tells the tale of Grunwalski, who makes the fatal error of crapping too far away from a train when it stops and freezing to death after it pulls away. The way this anecdote cuts through the noise, through the constant, boisterous back and forth dialogue, gives it the feeling of a didactic author’s message; bleak, oblique, and bordering on nonsensical, as it may be.
‘GIVE ME THE FOOD AND LET ME GROW’
Kassovitz, Ladj Ly, and Bob Marley, whose words are threaded through this piece, are all in the business of ‘burning illusions’ – specifically the illusion that all people are treated equally (liberté, egalité, fraternité).
Teasingly, towards the end of La Haine, Said jokes that he’ll click his fingers and turn off the lights of the Eiffel Tower. Hubert tells him to stop being stupid; that only happens in films. But as the three boys step out of shot, the tower does indeed go dark. If only it were that easy.
One can’t snap one’s fingers and change the world, but cinema can shift perspectives with a click, or a tick, tick, tick. In the meantime, the coronavirus has once again laid bare the social inequality in the banlieues, with death rates in impoverished areas significantly higher than France as a whole.
Rather than ‘So far so good’ subsistence, now there’s the opportunity to restructure society more fairly. Hatred and misery should not be normalised; cinema, with its strange cows and flares and flickering rage, asks us to look again.
LES MISÉRABLES is in most cinemas now.
LA HAINE is in selected cinemas now, in a new 4K restoration.
Sub-headings throughout the article are taken from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ‘Burnin’ and Lootin’’; which plays over La Haine’s opening credit sequence.