Three young friends -- Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Hubert (Hubert Koundé) -- are trapped like rats in a sprawling housing project on the outskirts of Paris. Of Jewish, Arabic, and African descent, respectively, the three of them are marginalized even among a group few can be bothered to notice in the first place. They have neither jobs nor the prospect of work. They have nothing to do all day but watch as their anger festers...their frustration resounding back at them
La haine immediately took the world by storm upon its release in 1995, and its reputation was only cemented when a series of violent riots erupted throughout France a decade later that virtually mimicked the events of the film. The prescience of this sociopolitical story is hardly coincidental. La haine boasts the craftsmanship of a masterful filmmaker as well as a documentarian's compulsion to uncover the truth. Cassel, Taghmaoui, and Koundé wholly escape into their performances. As familiar as at least some of their faces ought to be to most any avid filmgoer, I see only Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert, not actors performing in front of a 35mm camera. It's immediately apparent that the three of them have immersed themselves in this world. They aren't being shuttled from a four-star hotel to a Parisian soundstage day in and day out; they live, sleep, and breathe the same oppressive, shat-upon existence their characters are forced to endure. That La haine was lensed in one of these remote government housing projects -- that the film is teeming with the tenants of these concrete prisons -- lends the film a sense of immediacy that would be impossible to recreate in any other way. The setting of La haine is very much a character -- a living, breathing organism, blanketed in graffiti and pockmarked with used needles -- in its own right.
The three friends very much come across as people rather than cinematic constructs as well. Vinz pictures himself as some sort of hardened gangster, parroting De Niro's iconic "you talkin' to me?" monologue from Taxi Driver in a bathroom mirror, mere moments after his grandmother berates him for his disinterest in going to temple. Discovering that snub-nosed pistol furthers Vinz' daydreams...of killing a cop if his friend Abdel succumbs to his injuries from the riot...but it's one thing to talk the talk and quite another to walk the walk. Despite being the most physically imposing of the three, Hubert is also the most quiet and thoughtful member of the group. A smalltime boxer and nickel-and-dime drug dealer, Hubert achieved his dream of opening a gym only to see it quickly reduced to ash. When tempers flare among the frustrated residents of these concrete tenements, they lash out at anything and anyone within reach, and the smoldering carcass of Hubert's gym ranks among those many casualties. Saïd, meanwhile, is a loudmouth with no real ambition to speak of and an occassionally obnoxious sense of humor. All three are infused with a great deal of depth and dimensionality. They're deeply flawed characters all, and they're not to be mistaken as heroes. La haine doesn't want you to like them, exactly; it wants you to understand them. Their environment -- the creation of a government that gave them a place to sleep and has otherwise largely walked away with disinterest -- has molded them into the angry young men they are. They have no hope. They have no future. As loathesome as so many of the things the three friends do ultimately are, there's an unmistakeable humanity to them that still earns our sympathy. They fret about bad haircuts, they fawn over pretty girls, and, as ridiculously as they so often behave, they generally want to be taken seriously. That posturing, coupled with the gun tucked in Vinz' jeans, inevitably gets them into the worst kind of trouble.
The driving force of La haine is an untenable social and political situation. Its message is far more complex than a heavy-handed grunt of government-bad/oppressed-masses-good. The impoverished are shuttled off to these concrete cities that are both on the outskirts of yet worlds removed from such urban centers as Paris. They're provided
Mathieu Kassovitz' direction is nothing short of brilliant. On one hand, La haine evokes a documentary, defined by its gritty black-and-white photography and hunger for authenticity. Extended takes and long tracking shots further that sense of verisimilitude, allowing viewers to better immerse themselves into this grimy world. The hip-hop that thunders throughout is largely diagetic, with Kassovitz disinterested in punctuating the emotions with a traditional film score. At the same time, La haine is very much the handiwork of an accomplished filmmaker, boasting many startlingly well-crafted compositions and inspired camera movements. Few directors, regardless of skill or experience, could construct a movie with as few cuts as La haine; that Kassovitz executed it so masterfully in his second feature film makes his accomplishments that much more remarkable. It's impressive how sparingly La haine truly resorts to violence. It's a pervasive threat, one that's constantly looming over the film like a dark cloud, but it's rarely unleashed. That approach ensures that when those swift, brutal onslaughts of action come, the impact they make is devastating.
Though certain specifics of La haine may be rather unique to France, it comes as little surprise that the film proved to be a success the world over. Marginalization and identity are, after all, largely universal themes. Despite -- and perhaps even because of -- their great many flaws, La haine's central characters are relatable and sympathetic. Kassovitz' dazzlingly visual eye uncovers the beauty lurking within a gritty, grimy world. Viewers of La haine aren't passive, distant observers but are instead immersed into these characters' grueling lives. It's nearly impossible to overstate the power and resonance that La haine continues to wield after nearly twenty years, and its release on Blu-ray comes recommended with the greatest possible enthusiasm.
Director Mathieu Kassovitz didn't merely sign off on this transfer of La haine; he supervised the entire process himself. It follows that this Blu-ray disc should very accurately reflect Kassovitz' vision for
La haine does indeed look terrific in high definition. Filmed in color with the intention of reducing it to black-and-white, contrast and black levels throughout La haine are consistently robust. Detail and clarity are dazzling when the camera is closed in tightly. The image skews somewhat soft otherwise, and it's uncertain if that dates back to the original photography or if it's the result of transferring the full-color image to monochrome. There is occassional hard ringing around areas of high contrast, but this appears to be an in-camera artifact rather than the side-effect of artificial sharpening. The gritty texture of La haine has not been smeared away through excessive digital noise reduction, ensuring that its appearance is as natural and filmic as possible. No visible wear or damage ever intrude either.
Though the tinge of softness and the incorporation of standard definition news footage into its visual vocabulary ensure that La haine will not be mistaken for reference quality, this is nonetheless a very strong presentation, and I'm really not left with any meaningful complaints.
La haine arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, with the film essentially getting one layer to itself and the upconverted extras devouring most of the other. La haine is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been encoded with AVC.
As expected for a Criterion release, La haine is presented exclusively in its original French. The ambitious sound design belies La haine's fiercely low budget. The surrounds are relentlessly immersive hroughout the cité, fleshing out such a persistent sense of atmosphere that the housing project feels very much like an organic, living thing. Even the most subtle effects -- the sound of a television panning from the front-left to the center and back again as the three friends walk around an apartment; traffic whizzing by in the background as these characters sit in a car -- are rendered with remarkable skill. As Mathieu Kassovitz notes in his audio commentary, the sound design is almost monaural throughout the sequences in Paris, in stark contrast to the more aggressive mix in the cité. One notable exception is the scene in the movie theater as Vinz bounds from screening to screening, devouring a startlingly diverse assortment of different genres. Even though the imagery on-screen is never seen, the clever sound design immediately establishes what type of film Vinz is watching, exactly. Gunfire is sparse but is reinforced with great ferocity in the mix, and the diagetic music is bolstered by a thunderous low-frequency roar. Dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout as well. La haine is a film that demands to be experienced on a proper home theater rig, and it's appreciated as ever that it's been treated with such care and respect by Criterion.
The French audio is a 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track, and optional English subtitles are enabled by default.
The handsomely-designed booklet features a pair of essays. The first, by Ginette Vincendeau, addresses the accusations of La haine's culpability in the 2005 riots, briefly explores Kassovitz's career as a filmmaker in the years since, and touches on the roles of gender and ethnicity in the film. The other is director Costa-Gavras' thoughts about La haine as printed in the program book from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.
The Final Word
The sociopolitical embers of La haine are still smoldering close to twenty years after its initial release. Despite its director's certainty that this is a distinctively French story whose appeal had little hope of reaching outside its borders, La haine's exploration of race, class, and alienation continues to resonate the world over. This artfully crafted and supremely powerful film is an essential discovery for those who have yet to experience it, and I couldn't be more thrilled that Criterion has seen fit to bring La haine to Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.