Burning All Illusions: Trouble in the banlieues with La Haine and Les Misérables - whynow

Burning All Illusions: Trouble in the banlieues with La Haine and Les Misérables


Les Misérables follows Stéphane as he joins Montfermeil’s Anti-Crime brigade and navigates the tensions between different pockets of the community. The film arrives a quarter of a century after La Haine, a 90s cult classic with a lasting legacy when it comes to le cinema de banlieue. Both films have (re-)emerged at a time when social and racial inequality are being urgently re-examined in light of the BLM movement and the pandemic.

‘BURNING ALL ILLUSIONS TONIGHT’

Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) follows Vinz (Vincent Cassell), Said (Said Taghmaoui) and Hubert (Hubert Koundé) wandering aimlessly about the French suburbs (banlieues) in the aftermath of a riot. The film is punctuated by a ticking clock, suggestive of a bomb. Ten years after its release, the deaths of two young boys hiding from police in an electricity substation sparked weeks of unrest in communities much like theirs. Schools, gyms and police stations were set on fire. More than 9,000 vehicles were torched. Police deflected stones with their riot shields.

And as the riots spread through the suburbs in 2005, the world’s media looked to Kassovitz for his opinion. He went public on his blog, attacking former Prime Minister (but then Minister of the Interior) Nicholas Sarkozy:

If the suburbs are exploding once again today, it is not due to being generally fed up with the conditions of life that entire generations of “immigrants” must fight with every day […] Sarkozy does not like this community. He wants to get rid of these “punks” with high-pressure water hoses, and he shouts it loud and clear right in the middle of a “hot” neighborhood at 11 in the evening. The response is in the streets. “Zero tolerance” works both ways.

Sarkozy responded by accusing Kassovitz of supporting the minority of violent ‘hooligans’: ‘To make common cause with a minority whose actions are reprehensible, or even murderous in some cases, is not helping the situation in the suburbs,’ he said. Needless to say, Sarkozy’s comments courting the ultra-right vote in his plea for power-hose discipline didn’t help the situation in the suburbs much either.

‘HOW MANY RIVERS DO WE HAVE TO CROSS / BEFORE WE CAN TALK TO THE BOSS?’

Ten years later again, and not much had changed. Arguably, the neglect of the banlieues, and the social tension this gave rise to, was worse than ever in 2015.

Following shootings, which were carried out by attackers who had grown up in the banlieues, on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket, Prime Minister Manuel Valls painted a picture of inequality in unusually stark terms diametrically opposed to Sarkozy’s comments above: ‘A geographical, social and ethnic apartheid has established itself in our country,’ he said. ‘Apartheid’ (‘separate’ + Dutch for ‘-hood’) might seem a strong word, but it’s the only one that truly speaks to the inequalities caused by spatial and racial segregation.

A potted history of France’s banlieues supports the old proverb that good intentions pave the road to hell: after the Second World War, over 7 million houses had no running water. A significant portion of the population lived in overcrowded slums and war-damaged buildings.

Faced with a major housing crisis, France’s grand ensembles — high-rise housing estates built between the 50s and 70s, and cleaving to the architect Le Corbusier’s ideals of the ‘functional city’ — were viewed as an ingenious solution marrying technical and social progress. 

But by the 1970s, cracks were starting to show. Working and middle-class families increasingly left the estates, and were encouraged to do so by a government pushing homeownership and selective social mobility.

Poorer families from the French countryside moved in, along with immigrants — not least the Pieds-Noir and Harki populations displaced by the Algerian War of Independence (1954 — 62); the violence of France’s colonial history reverberated in its metropolises.

An oil crisis in the 1970s led to mass layoffs, and, by the 80s, banlieues had become synonymous with social exclusion and poverty. Spatial segregation on the outskirts of cities now also meant racial segregation.

Culturally alienated, facing unemployment rates as high as 40% in 2005, and ever alert to hostile policing, it’s easy to empathise with intermittent unrest in these areas. Kassovitz started writing La Haine in 1993 when a Zairian young man Makome M’Bowole was shot by police while in custody. Over three hundred such police bavures (‘slipups’) resulting in death have been recorded since 1981.

‘COULD NOT RECOGNISE THE FACES STANDING OVER ME / ALL DRESSED IN UNIFORMS OF BRUTALITY’

 In the Black Lives Matter era – when ‘bavures’, to use the French word, are being rightly reframed as hate crimes – the rerelease of La Haine has new resonance. Also arriving in UK cinemas with a sense of urgency is Les Misérables (2019), the debut feature from director Ladj Ly, a film which you can’t help but compare with La Haine for its unflinching look at seething tensions in the banlieues.

Les Misérables opens with a young boy wrapped in the French flag. He and his friends hop the Métro barriers and head into central Paris to watch the big game. France beats Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup Final. Flares go off in the streets (foreshadowing the flare-ups to come). People carry chairs above their heads through a sea of testosterone and exuberance, the country joined together in national pride. Dramatic irony, of course, when we know our themes are alienation and community divisions. Ecstatic crowds cheering jar with the overlaid title: ‘The Miserable Ones.’ 

by the 80s, the banlieues had become synonymous with social exclusion and poverty.

Daring as it is for Ladj Ly to have named his film Les Misérables, after Victor Hugo’s 19th century epic, the title’s wryness is somewhat diluted by some expository banter, when new Street Crime Unit policeman Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) explains that Hugo set his novel in this area. ‘Things haven’t changed much,’ he says. Yup, we get it.

Having said that, Stéphane is very much our window into the Montfermeil district – and its violent banlieue Les Bosquets. The film slips with ease into a First-Day-On-the-Job police procedural, occasionally widening out to the broader cast and to those on both sides of the law, in the spirit of The Wire.

In charge of the Street Crime Unit is Chris (Alexis Menenti) or ‘Pink Pig’: proud of his nickname (‘100% swine’, he boasts), he has an assortment of pig toys on his desk to match, which establish the film’s gone-sour tang of black humour. Completing the trio is Gwada (Djibril Zonga) who seems to tolerate Chris’ endless stream of racism, bigotry, and bullying, watching on with barely a tut as Chris ‘frisks’ a teenage girl at a bus stop.

Unlike La Haine, where an antic pace is promptly set by roving camera and its three fractious protagonists alike, Les Misérables moves at the pace of the SCU’s unmarked police car winding through the banlieue’s tough streets.

Director Ladj Ly, who grew up in Montfermeil and whose previous films have all been documentaries, gives us an insider’s view of overcrowded bedrooms, bustling markets and kids riding bin lids down concrete slopes. Stéphane soon learns that in this thicket of sun-baked roads and alleyways, the power dynamics are just as knotty and heated as their environment.

There’s ‘The Mayor’ (Steve Tientcheu), who runs some semi-corrupt market-stall dealings that Chris and Gwada turn a blind-eye to; in kind, The Mayor is tasked with keeping the community in check. There’s Salah (Almamy Kanouté), a reformed jihadi who runs a kebab shop, dispensing sage-like aphorisms while packing doner meat in a bun (Kanouté’s intensity makes this work far better than it sounds on paper).

Our plot really gets a-turning when a boy from the banlieue steals a lion cub from Romany travelers who run a circus. They show up on The Mayor’s doorstep with baseball bats and axes, and it’s down to our three crooked cops – Callous, Negligent, and Hapless, we might call them -– to track down and return the cub to avoid an all-out race riot.

‘There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.’

The stage seems set for steady progression towards a Quentin-Tarantino-esque eruption of meaningless violence, as the police, ‘The Mayor’, Salah, and the Romany gang all jostle for power, and the children caught in the middle of it all try to avoid being literally beaten down (they’ve got their hands full being immiserated, thanks).

Ly wisely takes his climax somewhere grittier and more political than a gun-slinging showdown. Without spoilers, he leaves us on the knife-edge of a decision which will be fatal either way and then (somewhat heavy handedly, some might argue) hits us with the words of Victor Hugo: ‘There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.’

 Les Misérables’ describes how children are so often the victims when the unchecked power of police clashes with a community trying to keep its head above water by any means necessary; to take one of Salah’s epigrams, ‘You will not escape their rage’. And so, from misery to hatred, La Haine.

‘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.

https://www2.bfi.org.uk/whats-on/bfi-film-releases/la-haine

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. 

Rampa  They Will Be