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Volume 5.2 1997
ISSN 1048-3721
This page was last updated on 03/15/99

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Sarah Sussman
Book Review

BOYZ IN THE BANLIEUE:
MATTHIEU KASSOVITZ’S "La HAINE"

Matthieu Kassovitz’s recent film La Haine [Hate] confronts the viewer with a France far removed from both the broad boulevards of the capital and the small rural towns of the provinces. Instead, the setting, a banlieue of Paris, and the protagonists, an African, an Arab, and a Jew, offer dramatic illustrations of the social changes and racial tensions that characterize the contemporary scene. La Haine tells the tale of what happens when a country imports labor in times of economic growth, and then fails to provide for these previously needed immigrants when their labor becomes expendable.

The film centers around the experiences of three male suburbanites [banlieusards] on the day after riots have occurred in their housing development in response to the beating of one of their friends by the police. The plot is loosely based on the actual police beating, during a 1986 student protest, of a young Arab, Malik Oussekine, who died from his wounds. Each of the film’s characters comes from one of the three groups most visible as outsiders in today’s France. Hubert, a young African, is a small-time hashish dealer whose boxing gym was destroyed in the vandalism of the riots. He seems to be the most rational of the three friends, but now that his life’s work has been taken away from him, he will do anything to escape his neighborhood. Sad, an Arab, seems unwilling to acknowledge the problems of his surroundings except by expressing amazement or incomprehension of them. And Vinz is a Jewish youth who finds a gun that was lost by a police officer during the riots. He is the angriest of the three and does not hesitate to offer violence as a means of releasing his bitterness.

Several aspects of the milieu of these young men require elucidation. In the United States, the suburbs connote a refuge for the middle and upper class outside the problems of an urban environment, whereas in France, the term for suburb, banlieue, suggests an entirely different meaning. Surrounding Paris on all sides, banlieues are planned housing developments for the working classes who can no longer afford to live in the city.

HLMs [habitations loyer modr] are the low-rent housing projects in the banlieues. Their inhabitants are primarily immigrant laborers from France’s former colonies in North and West Africa, as well as from Asia. After the Second World War, France, like other European nations, needed help rebuilding the country as an industrial nation and looked to its former colonies for workers. These workers were usually single men who were supposed to stay for only a limited period. In 1974, the borders were closed because of economic difficulties, yet families of previous immigrants could continue to enter, creating an ambiguous condition of entry. The HLMs are filled with families who migrated to France and remained there permanently, as illustrated in La Haine. The forest of concrete apartment towers seen in the film provides an unnatural, oppressive landscape for the inhabitants, which helps to explain their anger and detachment from society. Kassovitz includes shots of the HLMs that remind the viewer of powerful monoliths and prisons from the outside and of cages from the inside.

The banlieues, then, are failed urban settings. The housing is dreadful, and most of the jobs that we see are either illegal (selling drugs or stolen goods) or ephemeral (Hubert’s gymnasium). The schools do not seem to be a powerful presence in the lives of the young: not one of the three principal characters goes to school, even though they seem to be of school age. Kassovitz documents the one commodity that is plentiful in the banlieues: unfilled time. In an interview, the director described the place where the film was made:

in a ‘Cit’, i.e. a typical kind of French suburban housing ghetto where it’s not that unpleasant to live; they even have parks there, and soccer fields ... but it’s a ‘cit’ meaning that 80% of the population and 100% of the young have nothing to do... (Polygram Records web page).

 

The banlieue in which Hubert, Vinz, and Sad live is culturally and geographically removed from the real city, Paris. The train is their only connection between Paris and the banlieue. When the trio misses the last train back home, they find themselves stranded in an unfamiliar city and an unfamiliar society. They prove themselves clumsy in their interactions with city dwellers, as for example in their attempts to converse with some women at an art gallery opening. They are even arrested departing from a fancy apartment building because they have become frustrated at not being able to locate a man who owes Sad money. When they cannot call through the window, the preferred way of attracting someone’s attention in the banlieues, and must use an intercom, the other inhabitants of the apartment call the police. Even the language used by the characters is far removed from classic French, so much so that subtitles are needed in some parts of the film. It is peppered with attempts at American inner-city slang and verlan, a Parisian argot formed by using a method similar to pig Latin.

The characters’ primary contacts with the larger society are the police and the media, and both treat Sad, Vinz, and Hubert as outsiders. After the riots, the police survey the banlieue, as do the news media. The journalists try to interview Vinz and Sad as the two are sitting and talking outside. The youths answer the journalists’ well-formulated questions with macho taunts that betray a hostility born of alienation. Kassovitz also chooses to include several shots of a billboard whose ironic message, "le monde est vous" [the world is yours], contrasts with the experiences of the main characters. Sad, Vinz, and Hubert pass these posters when they are in Paris, where they look, act, and appear to feel lost and out of place. At one point, Sad defaces the poster, crossing out the "v" in "vous" and changing the message to read "le monde est nous" [the world is ours], a superficial threat to what they perceive as another society. (The American viewer is reminded of a similar poster that comments ironically on the life and death of Edward G. Robinson’s Rico in the classic gangster film Little Caesar.)

The incidents described above illustrate a key theme in this film: a rage towards the world, a rage that is so pervasive that it colors even the relationships between friends. Almost every scene in the film plays as a rising crescendo of anger. Because the characters have rarely, if ever, seen satisfying solutions to the problems in their personal lives and in their banlieue, they do not know how conflicts can be effectively resolved. The resulting lack of patience in working out solutions rapidly leads the characters to frustration and to angry dismissal of opposing points of view. The explosions that end each encounter serve both as segues into the following scenes and as examples of the trio’s inability to deal rationally with their surroundings.

Despite the underlying hostility in the boys’ interactions with each other and with the outside world, La Haine is not a depressing film. Rather, it is a tragicomedy. The audience sees comedy manifested within the rage. The humor is bitter and ironic and is conveyed in quick staccato bursts that parallel the impatience of the three protagonists with the norms of the larger French society. Early in the film, Vinz does a hilarious impersonation of Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, threatening invisible antagonists in a mirror. This is the comedy of belligerence, and it runs throughout the film.

The rage and comedy are especially telling in light of the very real threat of police brutality that faces the characters. The police represent the menacing aspect of bourgeois society, yet another authoritarian force to which the protagonists must submit. In one scene, Sad and Hubert are arrested in Paris. They are taken to the police station and abused both physically and verbally, even though the flics cannot accuse them of anything. When they are finally released, it is too late for them to catch the last train back to the banlieue, their home. The arbitrary nature of this sequence, and the fact that it happened in Paris and not the banlieue, emphasizes the characters’ lack of control in the larger society as well as the violence and alienation that result when the two worlds conflict.

A subtle game of cultural identification occurs within the dialogues of Sad, Vinz, and Hubert. Despite the fact that the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the three friends are clearly different, the characters never explicitly mention these differences as such. Instead, a constant undercurrent of remarks notes the awareness of their origins, especially Vinz’s Jewish origins. For example, Sad "jokingly" tells Vinz’s sister that he will kill her in the kosher manner, and when he is confused by Vinz’s actions later in the film, he says that Vinz is acting like a mix between Moses and Bernard Tapie, a French Jewish businessman who was jailed for fraud. When Vinz first appears in the film, the background music is "Hava Nagillah," one of the best-known Jewish folk songs. Despite this implicit attention to ethnic distinctions, Sad’s language sometimes suggests that the three youths are brothers, or at least cousins, by calling his two companions "Cousin Hub" and "Cousin Vinz." In addition to uniting them, these nicknames reflect the fact that all are related by their nationality, economic and social situation, and isolation from French society.

In La Haine, the characters are excluded from society less because of their race and more because of the fact that they live in the banlieue and are associated with the economic, educational, and geographical stigmata of their surroundings. Throughout the film, Hubert repeats a story of a man falling from a tall building. The punch line "jusqu’ maintenant, tout va bien" [up ‘til now, everything is OK] embodies the ultimate doom that the characters face, since there is little hope of escaping the banlieue. In Paris, an elderly Jewish man, an earlier immigrant from Eastern Europe, suggests to them that they should try to assimilate into the larger society. The boys unfortunately fail to grasp this advice because it is offered in the subtle form of a tragicomic story, not in the clear terms of the banlieue. This idea of being stigmatized by one’s surroundings applies to all of the banlieusards, regardless of race. In this sense, the banlieues are a universal leveling force; all who live there are excluded from the relative normalcy of the larger society.

One of the most dramatic incidents in La Haine occurs after a group of skinheads approach the trio when they are stranded in Paris. Once Vinz shows the skinheads his gun, all but one, played by the director Matthieu Kassovitz, escape. Vinz, who has by this time learned that his friend has died from the police beatings, is ready to kill and is in a position to act. Hubert, who was worried that Vinz would kill a police officer, now goads his friend to kill the skinhead: not all police are bad, he says, but all skinheads certainly are. Yet Vinz cannot go through with his intention and lets the man escape.

The film does not end here, however, but with another shocking episode of police violence. La Haine, like the classic American genre movies about gangsters and ghettos to which it pays homage, ends with a bang. But it offers more than a French variation on American themes. Kassovitz shows brilliantly how the problems of urban immigrant communities—unemployment and racism, alienation and police brutality, isolation and despair—have taken root in the suburbs of French cities. In Matthieu Kassovitz, the banlieues have found their Zola.

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