When a film called La Haine was released in France in 1995 it caused something of a stir. A sucess at the French box office, with around 500,000 viewers in the first six weeks of its release, as well as with the critics (it won the Best Director Award at Cannes), it became one of the most controversial and talked about French films in recent years.
The interest was unusual as the film was written and directed by a largely unknown young filmmaker and actor. Moreover, it was filmed in black and white, with no big name stars on a small budget (an estimated FF15 million). In Kassovitz, France, it seemed, had produced a young, talented and provocative filmmaker to rival American directors like Spike Lee, Quentin Tarrantino or even Britain's Danny Boyle.
Reactions to La Haine
The stir La Haine caused was, in part, due to its controversial subject matter - les banlieues (the suburbs) - which had, since the 1980s, become synonymous with France's major problems of unemployment, social exclusion, racial conflict, (sub)urban decay, criminality and violence. It was also due, in part, to its negative portrayal of the police who, with the exception of one officer of North African descent, are represented as violent, racist and uncomprehending. It was also due in part to its sympathetic, some might say indulgent, representation of an excluded and multi-ethnic suburban youth
Another reason for the stir La Haine caused, in critical circles at least, was the way it broke with the trends and preoccupations of French cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.
In rather crude terms, French cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s is dominated by two main trends: the so-called `heritage' film (`le cinéma du patrimoine') and the so-called `le cinéma du look' (also known as `cinéma du Forum des Halles').
Claude Berri's Jean de Florette (1985) and Manon des Sources (1986) and Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) are examples of the first trend and enjoyed national and international sucess. `Heritage' films are often literary adaptations made on a large budget with well-known stars. The `heritage' film refers back to the tradition de qualité that the filmmakers of la nouvelle vague rejected in the late 1950s and 1960s. `Heritage' film also appealed to a large audience through their depiction of the passions and intrigues of rural France in earlier, and perhaps, simpler times. As Jill Forbes has pointed out:
... some of the most popular films of the late 1980s and early 1990s exploited the idea of the Third Republic as the quintessential French heritage, whether represented in an idyllic rural setting in Claude Berri's Jean de Florette (1985) and Manon des Sources (1986), or an exploitative industrial environment as in his adaptation of Émile Zola's Germinal (1993).
J.Forbes & M. Kelly, French Cultural Studies: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p.260
Luc Besson's Subway (1985) and Nikita (1990); Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva (1981) and 370 2 le matin (1986); and Léos Carax's Boy meets Girl (1984), Mauvais sang (1986) and Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991) are examples of the second dominant trend. Often set, as the name suggests, in Paris (Diva, Subway, Les Amants du Pont Neuf), these films are marked by their preoccupation with style and surface - they have been likened to both images in advertisments and to MTV video clips - and by their unashamedly escapist intent. Full of implausible characters and plots (a female assassin from a secret state organisation, a subterrean criminal community living in the métro etc.) and highly stylized action sequences (car chases, fights etc.), these films also appealed to a wide audience in both France and throughout the rest of the world and some - Luc Besson's Nikita springs to mind - were remade by Hollywood.
What both trends have in common is their avoidance of any serious representation of problems and issues in contemporary France, although arguably Carax's Mauvais sang (le sida) and Les Amants du Pont Neuf (les nouveaux pauvres) are something of an exception here. It could be claimed that the Mitterand years presided over a kind of consensus about what kind of cinema was appropriate for France at the time. The problems of unemployment, social unrest in the suburbs, increasing racial tensions and the rise of the Front National were all absent from French cinema screens.
Un cinéma de banlieue
Haine (avoir la): développer à propos de quelqu'un ou d'une situation un sentiment de rage profonde.
A. Begag & C. Delorme, Quartiers sensibles (Paris: Seuil, 1994) p.7
It wasn't until the mid-1990s, that is to say, after the electoral defeat of Mitterand and the election of a right-wing government that other distinctive trends began to emerge. One of the trends that generated considerable media attention in 1995/6 was the emergence of the so-called cinéma de banlieue. Films like Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995), Thomas Gilou's Raï (1995), Jean-François Richet's État des lieux (1995) and Karim Dridi's Bye Bye (1996) confirmed a new preoccupation with the gritty reality of France's run-down suburbs.
Unusually, La Haine was shot in black and white, on grainy film stock, on location in a suburban housing estate called La Cité de la Nöe in Chanteloup-les-Vignes (Yvleines) with unknown or little known actors. Stylistically, it signalled an affinity with la nouvelle vague of the 1950s and 1960s, rather than the extravagant production values of the 1980s and 1990's which had seen a number of high budget films like Léos Carax's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and Claude Berri's Germinal. Thematically too, in its focus on a younger generation in a contemporary setting, it broke away from the period literary adaptations that were common in the 1980s and 1990s.
Kassovitz and la crise des banlieues
Since the late 1970s a `new problem' emerged in French political debates: the problem of les banlieues (the suburbs). Since then les banlieues have become, in popular opinion, in the media and amongst France's political élites, a stigmatized space of social fragmentation, racial conflict, (sub)urban decay, criminality and violence.
As the comments made above suggest, the English word suburb conveys little of the meanings of the French word banlieue. The word suburb in an British or North American context evokes leafy streets of Tudorbethan semi-detached houses with neatly clipped lawns and shining Volvos in every drive.
The French word banlieue on the other hand evokes an entirely different set of connotations - drugs, crime, delinquency, civil disorder, Islamic fundamentalism and even terrorism - all of them negative. Les banlieues are not full of comfortable houses for an affluent middle class, but are composed, rather, of large high-rise blocks full of the very poorest of France's population. If there is one term that is particularly used to describe the inhabitants of les banlieues it is les exclus, that is to say those excluded from playing an active role in and enjoying the fruits of the affluent society.
The `problem' of les banlieues became particularly prominent from the early 1980s onwards when violent confrontations (émeutes, affrontements) between suburban youths and the police took place in a number of the banlieues surrounding France's major cities like, for example, Vaulx-en- Velin (1990) and Vénissieux (1994) near Lyon and Sartrouville near Paris.
Les banlieues became the main theme of thousands of newspaper and magasine articles with dramatic titles evoking the impending social meltdown (e.g. La poudrière des banlieues, Elle monte, elle monte, la fièvre en banlieue, Banlieue damnée and Banlieue explosive) or else drawing comparison with American inner-city ghettos and their racial violence (e.g. Banlieue-ghetto, Le Bronx à Paris). In the 1980s and 1990s, the banlieues become the focal point in France for anxiety about the Other (i.e. in order to define ourselves, we need to construct somebody who we are not to define ourselves against), that is to say, the frighteningly different kind of French men and women living a few kilometres away from the affluent middle-class cities.
Character and Events
La violence urbaine est activée par un mot commun et à la mode: «la haine», évoquant un sentiment confus d'aggressivité. Elle trace des territoires invisibles entre les immeubles et les habitants, délimite des zones socio-ethniques dont on sent déjà les frontières. Des identités territorialisées s'affirment. Les violences influencent la cohésion d'un groupe, contribuent à approfondir la conscience d'appartenir à une communauté, d'autant plus solide parce qu'il s'agit d'une communauté d'exclus.
A. Begag & C. Delorme, Quartiers sensibles (Paris: Seuil, 1994) pp.59-60
The initial story for La Hainecame from a real-life fait divers: the shooting of a sixteen-year-old Zairean youth called Makomé Bowole in police custody in 1993. Unlike the Rodney King affair (a black man beaten by LAPD police officers was caught on videotape) which received wider public attention, Makomé's death went relatively unreported and unnoticed.
La Haine follows one day in the lives of three young banlieusards: Vinz, of Jewish descent, Saïd, a Beur, and Hubert, of African origin. Kassovitz replaces the bleu, blanc, rouge of the tricolore with the beur, blanc, `black' of the banlieues. The three friends are shown living by their wits, surviving on petty crime and small-time drug deals on a low income housing estate outside Paris. It's no ordinary day for them however, as a riot has just taken place on their estate, a friend has been assaulted in police custody and lies in hospital in a coma. To make things more explosive, Vinz finds a police revolver (une flingue) dropped, or stolen, during the rioting. As the three hang out together, picking over the aftermath of the riot and discussing the condition of their comatose friend, the tension mounts
The film is about the interracial solidarity of a small gang (une bande) of friends, divided by race, religion and ethnicity but joined by the common bonds of geographical and economic isolation. Living a life far removed from the far away from affluence of middle-class or tourist Paris, the three eke out a living by dodging and diving, working small-scale scams like dealing dope and handling stolen goods. Kassovitz is not so much interested in inter-racial violence - this is only touched upon briefly as part of a broader antagonism between young banlieusards and the police - but on a specific class (or underclass) and generation.
La Haine/Hate (18) France 1995. 95 mins. B & W. Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Hubert Kounde, Saïd Taghmaoui
Producer: Christophe Rossignon
Script: Mathieu Kassovitz
Camera: Pierre Aïm
Editor: Mathieu Kassovitz & Scott Stevenson
For further discussion of the so-called crise des banlieues - a useful starting point for an engagement with Kassovitz's representation of it - go to: