Released in 1995, 'La Haine' (hate) was an immediate box-office success in France, and achieved critical acclaim winning the Best Director Award at Cannes for Mathieu Kassovitz, then in his late twenties. Kassovitz comes from a family of film makers, and had already established himself as both a promising actor and director.
The film captures the rigid emptiness of life in a sprawling concrete banlieu (housing scheme) on the outskirts of Paris, an environment peopled by those who lack the financial or social clout to live somewhere better. These are Eastern Bloc tenements, characterless boxes in which society's detritus can be stacked, abandoned, and - hopefully - forgotten about.
The film focuses on three lads - somewhat stereotypically a Jew, a North African, and a black African. Life in the banlieu is supposed to be a tale of sanitised boredom - surely the immigrant population should be grateful for admission to the cultural greatness of France and its capital? Only the black youth attempts to make something of it - he has struggled to build a gym and to literally fight his way out of poverty by boxing. The North African youth is an incorrigible thief and poseur. The Jewish lad, meanwhile, poses in front of the mirror, aping De Niro's taxi-driver and playing the hard man.
But the world of the banlieu has imploded in urban riot - a participant sport in which local youths can engage and enrage the CRS, the French riot police, in a game of street chess, complete with petrol bombs and baton rounds. It is, of course, an entertaining spectator sport for the film crews and media. For the rioters, their fifteen minutes of fame come courtesy of news broadcasts.
The Jewish boy finds a handgun, dropped by one of the riot police. Now he can finally imitate De Niro. He has power, he has status, because he has a gun. All he needs now is a pretext to use it, something to legitimise the pulling of the trigger.
Shot in black and white, 'La Haine' is a tale of escalating tension, a deconstruction of the alienation experienced by young men who perceive mainstream society as a closed door and who can conceive of no future for themselves. Its institutions, even the family, have no hold on them. The presence of the police within the banlieu seems an invasion of what little space they call their own - they have their own values, their own morality. They are at the bottom of the ladder: the riot police seem to be there simply to remind them that they can be squashed at will.
The film achieves a documentary quality - it is reminiscent of 'The Battle for Algiers', it reconstructs the banlieu as a sort of casbah, complete with rooftop living. Rioting in France, of course, has a slightly different context from rioting in Britain. Street riots are historically associated with revolution. But the riots, here, are devoid of any overt, focused political cause or objectivity. They are simply oppositional. You almost sense that the CRS like to have a more than virtual reality training suite like this - whenever they want to practice their riot duties, they simply drive in and give the locals a bit of a stir.
It's the sheer arrogance of both sides which comes across. Their actions are amoral and pointless ... other than in fighting an opponent. The youths are never going to win, but neither are the police. Properly orchestrated, it could become a tourist attraction - "Hey, let's go to Paris, watch a riot!" Who would want to go to Eurodisney when they could have this?
Kassovitz extends a sympathetic hand to the young men. The banlieus were synonymous with social exclusion and had become a focus of French populist and often racist politics since the 1970's - decaying, impoverished, rife with crime and drugs, and damned with indelible social stigma ... try getting a job when you have to declare your postcode and admit where you live! The residents were socially, economically, culturally, and politically excluded from ... if not actively rejected by mainstream French society.
Originally inspired by the shooting of 16-year old black youth in 1993 (it attracted little or no media attention at the time), Kassovitz was influenced by a number of directors (Spike Lee is often cited, but Kurosawa was an influence, and there is a whole dynamic of French films which feature disaffected youth and which employ a drama-documentary approach and social realist techniques). It's an extraordinarily impressive and powerful piece of cinema, its impact made all the greater by its low budget, its lack of star names, and indeed, by its moral ambiguity.
The tension builds almost unbearably to an inevitable conclusion in what is, above all, a superb piece of filmmaking. The DVD, however, let Kassovitz down. In the original release, the sub-titles are almost indecipherable - they are lost against the black and white of the film, and translate the French into Americanisms which lose much of the force of the language. The special edition resolves this, making the action much easier to follow - so go for that. 'La Haine' is already a classic piece of French - and European - cinema, and is a must watch for any true film fan.