In late 2005, when long-term civil unrest in Paris's poorer, multiethnic suburbs once again reached a violent pitch, France's Minister of the Interior (and future president), Nicolas Sarkozy, proclaimed the rioting to be the work of hoodlums and suggested that the “scum” of the banlieues should be purged with waterblasters. Last week, as Sarkozy himself was finally waterblasted out of office, Criterion also happened to release a new Blu-ray edition of a film he publicly deplored, both for its sympathetic portrayal of the banlieusards and for its unapologetic depiction of police brutality.
La Haine was Matheiu Kassovitz's breakout film in 1995, an instant sensation that remains not only a cult favorite (an action movie adored by hormone-stoked adolescents worldwide), but also one of the most nuanced and technically accomplished treatments of race, violence, and the politics of assimilation in recent cinema. The Blu-ray release gives new life to the look and sound of La Haine at the very moment the election of François Hollande as France's next president gives new hope to the contemporary counterparts of the film's disenfranchised subjects: the trio of friends—Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Hubert (Hubert Koundé)—who represent the ethnically mixed French-born and immigrant populations (especially those of North African and West African descent) who continue to populate France's vast, isolated postwar apartment blocks, where social services and cultural amenities are virtually nonexistent, and where unemployment rates have vastly outpaced the national average ever since the 1980s.
Almost two decades after its initial release, La Haine remains a timely portrait of a broken social system. From the perspective of the three outraged young men at its center, this system has the face of a multitude of corrupt and abusive policemen. As the film opens, another young man, Abdel, has been severely beaten while in police custody, and in the rioting that ensued Vinz has stumbled upon a gun, lost by a cop in one of the skirmishes. He vows that, if Abdel dies, he'll use the gun to kill a cop, any cop, just as the police, in his view, indiscriminately target and kill the banlieusards. As they wait for news of Abdel, they survey the aftermath of the rioting: Hubert's gym has been destroyed, the local fence's car has been torched. (The isolation of the banlieues means that most of the damage caused during the periodic uprisings is to the residents' own property.) When they try to visit Abdel in the hospital, the cops turn them away. Periodic flare-ups with the police throughout the film keep the hate well-fueled on both sides.
But it's also a day like any other: Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert hang with their friends; Hubert delivers his latest drug earnings to his mother; Vinz gives Saïd a haircut; they sit for hours on rooftops and in courtyards swapping stories and talking trash; they watch the b-boys spin in an empty high-rise lobby; a local DJ, played by Anouar Hajoui, blasts a mix of Hajoui's own “Nique la Police” and Édith Piaf"s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” out of his apartment window, while a heli-cam shot floats us above the boys and young men doing their best to cope with life's paradoxically desperate timelessness in the courtyard below.
The producers' original, financially risky decision to print La Haine in black and white (it was shot on color stock) is just one of the aesthetic triumphs freshly revealed in the Blu-ray version. The film's black-blanc-beur chiaroscuro conveys both the contemporary dreariness of the cement-and-dust landscape of the banlieues and the historical depth of classic cinema, alternating in narratively compelling fashion between elegantly composed, near-static tableaus of urban doldrums, and the hyperkineticism of bullets and planetary fireballs, fast-zooms, and thrilling chase scenes.
At one point, the friends decide to break loose and take the train to Paris to pick up some money owed to Saïd by a cocaine-addled drug-dealer, Astérix (François Leventhal). In the Trocadéro quarter, Saïd asks a policeman for directions and is stunned when the officer addresses him politely as “Monsieur.” But this rapprochement is short-lived. After a fracas with the concierge at Astérix's fancy apartment building, Saïd and Hubert are picked up by some less well-mannered Paris cops and, in one of the film's most harrowing scenes, tortured in the local police station.
Reunited with Vinz after their release, they find they've missed the last train home, and their Parisian odyssey continues through the night. After the shock of seeing a TV report of Abdel's death, Vinz's murderous rage reaches its limit during a run-in with some skinheads. He pulls his gun on one of the skinheads, played by Kassovitz himself, but finds he can't bring himself to shoot. After the somber morning train-ride back home, Vinz surrenders the gun to Hubert. But the cops appear yet again, and the film's devastating ending, which plays out beneath a huge mural of Baudelaire, blows away the hopefulness of that peace-minded gesture. In an earlier era of violent class struggle, Baudelaire had written that Hate is like a drunkard in a tavern, except that, unlike other drunkards, Hate never finds relief in inebriate slumber. Kassovitz's valedictory question from 1995 is still an open one: Will the escalation continue?
The Blu-ray mastering of the high-definition transfer of this gorgeous black-and-white film is sharp, rich, and artifact-free—distinctly superior to the 2007 DVD. Dialogue is the star of the sound design, so the audio track is largely center-channeled. But ambient noises and music are delivered in very nice immersive surrounds. The music, ranging from Édith Piaf to Bob Marley and Isaac Hayes to Cut Killer and Expression Direkt, is great, but it never overwhelms the actors' fantastically rich local argot, French densely packed with verlan and American slang. The optional English subtitles, which naturally lose most of the argot's texture and allusiveness, have been smartly crisped and brightened.
The extras are very good, though it's too bad they haven't been updated since the 2007 DVD release. Top marks go to Mathieu Kassovitz's commentary track—one of the best director commentaries I've heard. Kassovitz is funny, informative, and intimate, without being tediously self-involved. Jodie Foster, who facilitated the film's American distribution, offers a cogent introduction, and there are two substantial and informative featurettes: One documents the film's reception from 1995 to 2005, and the other offers an extended sociological analysis of France's banlieues. Of special interest are three shorter collections of footage: "Preparing for the Shoot," which documents the weeks spent by the cast and crew living in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, the commune where much of the film was shot; "The Making of a Scene," about both the technical demands and the dramatic importance of the fantasy sequence in which Vinz shoots a policeman; plus selections of deleted and extended scenes, which give us a welcome chance to see portions of the original color rough cuts.
Mathieu Kassovitz's iconic film about race, violence, and class struggle is both rousing entertainment and brilliant filmmaking, beautifully redelivered in Criterion's new Blu-ray edition.