Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Favorites - La Haine (#99)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love to find out what makes them - and me - tick. La Haine a/k/a "Hate" (1995/France/dir. Mathieu Kassovitz) appeared at #99 on my original list.

What it is • Three young friends - an Arab, a Jew, and an African (no this isn't a bar joke) are French, yet they are outsiders in their own country. They live on the edge: the edge of Paris (in France, the suburbs - "la banlieu" - are the equivalent of American inner cities), the edge of society, the edge of violence, the edge of their own sanity. Last night there was a massive riot, tonight there will probably be another, and meanwhile today they have a gun, stolen from a cop. Will they use it? The film follows them as they fight, dance, get high, hang out, visit the city, get beaten up by cops, and visit a friend, himself a victim of police brutality. By day's end, they're ready to explode... La Haine itself exploded on the scene in the mid-90s, and a decade later it was more relevant than ever; during the 2005 riots, writer/director Mathieu Kassovitz engaged in a public debate with future President Nicolas Sarkozy over the justification for the rioters' rage.

Why I like it •
This movie is just cool as shit - its opening, a spoken intro followed by an exploding Molotov cocktail and convincing-looking video footage scored to Bob Marley's "Burnin' and a Lootin' Tonight," is obviously inspired by Mean Streets and about as effective in putting its foot down and proclaiming, "Here's a fucking movie." La Haine has style to burn, mixing and matching a simmering sense of frustration and impatience (wide shots, long takes, extended silences, an offbeat monologue by an aging victim of the gulag) with an explosive kinetic energy (a camera floating out a ghetto window, a propulsive hip-hop soundtrack mixing and matching American beats with French lyrics, jacked-up cutting and a constantly moving frame). Some of the technical tricks must be seen to be believed, but they're never merely flashy for their own sake. The point is to communicate the characters' excitement and anger, and while La Haine draws inspiration from Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, its primary source of power is the trio of Said Taghmaoui, Hubert Kounde, and especially Vincent Cassell.

How you can see it • La Haine is a part of the Criterion Collection, and is available on DVD from Netflix. A clip from the film kicks off "Living in the Nineties", Chapter 29 in my video series.

What do you think? • Does La Haine appropriately match its joyous energy with its serious content? Was it style over substance? Did you feel the ending conveyed an appropriate and effective message? Did you like the characters? What was your favorite scene - the visit to Snoopy (Asterisk in the original French, but the translators must not have thought we'd get the joke), the move in to the mirror, the breakdancing broken up by invading cops, the harrowing police torture sequence, the liberating "floating camera" sequence, the visit to the prickly, pretentious gallery in which the intellectual curator kicks the boys out and then sighs, "Ah, l'ennui de la banlieue..." ("the malaise of the ghetto," but it sounds better in French)?

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Previous week: La Vieja Memoria (1979)

Next week: Lost in Translation (2003)

7 comments :

JPK said...

This looks great, do not know it at all. Last year when you published your big list I made a point of getting to a number of the titles (favorite so far, though I'm not sure that's the right word, has been Satantango). But now that you're doing it more systematically I suspect I will too, so definitely appreciating your "How you can see it" notes too.

Mike said...

Sounds right up my alley, added to the Netflix queue. I'll check back in once I've seen it.

Joel Bocko said...

Oh boy, two in one day! :) Hope you guys like the movie as much as I do. As I said in the original capsule, it's a film which captures the energy and verve of hip-hop which to my mind was the defining soundtrack and cultural scene of the 90s.

STinG said...

Well, I think the urban stylization, the casual wandering youth in the middle of the riots style, really fit and made the content a lot more engaging if they just tried to play the picture as a serious drama.
In some cases, it actually allowed me as a viewer to be just as on edge and angry with the trio as the count down the hours to a their friends' demise. It's a friendly little trip around the block for most of the picture, but each of these three leads are sort of timebombs and it's easier to recognize with the style Kassovitz chose.

Indeed, as obvious as I made it, it should be worth noting that I did like the characters - probably largely due to, being an Algerian who lived for a brief time in France, having recognized such similar people in my life, a rarity in many films where I feel portrayals of characters are deliberately larger than life (though not as large as the theater). Hubert was the most likable, I'd think, but Vinz was a challenge from his headstrong attitude to sympathize, which Kassovitz probably wisely was able to accomplish by bringing us most into his mind (the dancing in Hubert's gym, the bathroom scene where he recites Taxi Driver) as well as seeing his family. Said was kind of annoying to me, but his middle of the road status between as well as being a fellow Maghrebiyah allows me to relate a lot to him too. He is, for all intents and purposes, the closest thing to an everyman between the three.
My favorite scenes happen to be none of the really memorable sequences, more the gallery scene where they try to hit on the two girls and then get kicked out (I just found it familiar with my friends and I) and the scene in the bathroom with the small man who relates the tale of Grunwalski, the Siberian worker. It's so morbidly humorous in an absurd manner, I almost feel bad for loving that monologue and sequence.

Very good stuff, keep it coming.

Mike said...

Very cool movie. Love the 'in your face' style and soundtrack. The main characters are people who in real life I wouldn't like but in the film you really grow with them and by the end its like they are your friends. I know that sounds cheesy but you can't help but root for them during their pathetic pick up attempt in the art gallery or when they try to jack a car then realizing they can't even drive. I definitely got a 'Mean Streets' vibe.. the music, the montage at the begining, and that scene on the roof where one of the characters wonders if he could 'turn off' the Eiffel Tower remided me in the scene from Mean Streets where De Niro tried to shoot the empire state building. The ending was powerful and I didn't see it coming at all. And the message is cool- society is falling, I like that. La Haine could have been pretentious, but instead of condeming its characters you feel like you're riding with them.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, STinG, I just caught this now. Turning off moderation allows a freer give-and-take with comments, which is great, but I'm no longer getting notified when people comment so sometimes it'll take me a bit to catch up.

I think another way Kassovitz helps us get past Vinz's abrasive style is by casting the brilliant and charismatic Vincent Cassell in the part - this was, I believe, the role that made him a star (or at least, for American audiences, a distinctive character actor) and he plays it with gusto. Those are both great scenes. There are so many in this movie!

Joel Bocko said...

Glad you liked it, Mike. Great point with the Mean Streets comparison - I never thought about the Empire State Building-Eiffel Tower connection before.

"The main characters are people who in real life I wouldn't like but in the film you really grow with them and by the end its like they are your friends." Great description - I love when movies can do that, especially with a more limited timeframe than TV shows have. Kassovitz does a great job balancing bravura cinematic setpieces against hangout moments where you're just getting to know everyone and familiarize yourself with the texture of their everyday lives. At the same time, the backdrop of the riots which lends even the most casual moments an extra intensity.