Nicola Sarkozy's recent victory over Socialist Segolene Royal for the French presidency makes Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (Hate) even more relevant than when it debuted at Cannes in 1995. With her promise to raise the minimum wage and create subsidized jobs, Royal maintained strong support among the banlieue youth of the Parisian suburbs, inhabiting concrete wasteland housing projects where unemployment is sky-high. She warned that a Sarkozy win could literally enflame these neglected projects once again—repeating the riots of late 2005.
What we get from the media reports are pictures of angry youth, burning cars, and chaotic clashes in the street; a few strive to provide sociological studies of the alienated underclass. But to get an inside view of the situation, there simply is no better source than Kassovitz's disturbing urban study. Despite coming from an educated middle-upper middle class Parisian upbringing, the actor/director befriended a number of youth in the suburbs, and this gives him unprecedented insight and access to their world. This enables Kassovitz to give human faces to the complex problem—the marginalized immigrants who aimlessly live from day to day without hope.
To add grit and reality, Kassovitz and his actors lived in the housing projects as they prepared to shoot. Focusing on three primary characters to represent different alienated French immigrant youth, the narrative follows their aimless existence through a 24-hour period: Vinz (Vincent Cassel) represents the Jewish working class, Hubert (Hubert Kondé) is African, and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is a North African Arab. An unlikely trio in most U.S. locales, this indicates that social class determines friendships in this particular locale—further emphasized by the supporting cast, primarily non-actors selected directly from the shooting environment neo-realist style.
A repeated metaphor talks about a man falling from a skyscraper who keeps saying that "so far so good ... so far so good" as he falls. This captures their situation. Despite being French citizens, they live in virtual no-man's land an hour's commute from central Paris. Adopting more snippets of American culture than French, the trio uses L.A. gangster slang, break-dance, or act out De Niro's classic "You talking to me" speech from Taxi Driver. They speak the French language, but they certainly don't act like anyone you've ever met in a Truffaut, Godard, or Renoir movie.
La Haine parallels Spike Lee's work much closer than the classic French directors, and not only due to the insightful sociological study and critique. The improvisational dialogue flows naturally—fresh and contemporary, yet too tightly constructed to be accidental. Humor flows, yet anger flashes whenever authority figures appear. An innocent rooftop picnic/party is abruptly interrupted when the mayor visits below and has policemen clear the area. A little later voyeauristic journalists looking for an easy scoop justifiably receive the brunt of their righteous anger.
Kassovitz shows true artistry and obviously understands the social terrain. Even seemingly meaningless moments strike profound notes—a young boy narrates a Candid Camera incident that only demonstrates how empty their lives have become. Similarly, an old man emerges from a toilet and tells a head-shaking tale about taking a shit on a train. Along with the tale, he profoundly asks, "Does God believe in us?" You have to wonder while walking in the footsteps of these engaging protagonists—decent, intelligent kids who struggle against their society imposed limitations.
Stylistically, Kassovitz uses a wide-angled lens for striking close-ups very much like Spike Lee does in his most dynamic work. One notable comparison occurs with Vinz's introduction. He lies face down on his bed as the camera enters and zooms in to his head and then super close to his hand (showcasing a large silver ring with Hebrew script). Another striking effect is achieved in Paris when a backward zoom shot blurs the background while leaving the three youth in focus, further establishing their isolation.
The camera graphically captures the sterility of the banlieue district. The stark light buildings and concrete structures stand in an urban desert, as isolated from the bustling life of Paris as are the three protagonists. Further emphasized during the sojourn to Paris, their isolation from mainstream French society is complete. It's obvious that the posters of the planet proclaiming that the "World is Yours" does not include them. Their alienation has been pre-ordained, and this leads to an inevitable conclusion that would be considered "shocking" if we hadn't been along for the ride (falling off that skyscraper). That is no weakness of the film. Kassovitz deliberately allows us to enter their neglected environment so that we can understand their frustrations and experience how difficult it can be to break through the invisible but very tangible barriers that society has constructed.