Tuesday, February 10, 2009

La Haine: First glance

For this week’s project, I watched the first twenty minutes of the French movie “La Haine.” I’ve heard that I should watch this movie for about a year now, ever since people started finding out that I was studying French to go abroad. My friends who had seen the movie told me I had to see it, that it was a classic. Even my French teacher suggested that I watch it since it is a good example of French slang, the kind of French that young people speak on a daily basis instead of the proper French you learn in school. She did warn me however that the language is very harsh, with a lot of swearing, and that the movie is very, very violent. So going into the film, I was prepared for: a) naughty language, b) lots of violence, and c) an awesome movie. I wanted to focus on the first twenty minutes of the movie, since this was my first taste of “La Haine” and in my opinion, the first twenty minute of a movie are often the most important, since the main characters are introduced, the scene is set, and it gives you an idea of what to expect.

The opening credits show rioting in the streets. Burning cars and smashed windows, police in riot gear pushing back angry hordes of men and beating with their batons. A Bob Marley song was playing, and since the movie is in black and white, I was thinking that this film could be from anywhere in the U.S. during the Civil Rights movement. The shots looked exactly the same, the mob behaved in exactly the same way. I wasn’t expecting to be thrown into violence so quickly, but it served as a strong introduction in terms of what the movie is about, and more than anything else, lived up to the name of the film (“the hatred”) since there is no scarier form of hatred than that of a mob.

After the opening credits finished, you are visually introduced to one of the three main characters, Saïd. He has dark hair and dark eyes, and you can immediately see that he lives in a poor neighborhood with a heavy police presence. He wakes up his friend Vinz from a dream of break dancing to silly music, and after eating they go to meet the third main character, Hubert. Vinz is tall, white, and if I understood his grandmother correctly (the subtitles are only in French and cover less than half of what is being said), Jewish. Hubert is black, and as such they make quite the diverse threesome. Their personalities start to show during this first segment, and are recognizable to me as somewhat common film personalities. They are all tough kids off the streets, but Saïd is more playful, he jokes around more and talks the most out of the three. If anyone were to be accidentally killed, it would be his character. Or perhaps not killed…but corrupted, twisted in some way. In the first twenty minutes, the viewer doesn’t get a good feel for Hubert, but he seems level-headed and quieter. You know he has a violent side though since you first see him practicing with a punching bag, next to a poster of himself as a boxer. Vinz I believe is the most interesting and complicated of the three, and the one that scares me the most in terms of having the most anger and the most potential to break.

Stylistically I think that making the film in black and white was a very interesting choice. I know that during the opening credits, I personally wasn’t sure whether the riot clips were very well-done scenes in a studio, or film from actual riots that took place in France. (Despite the similarities to historic American disturbances, as well as the soundtrack, it is clear that the rioters and police are speaking French.) I found myself leaning towards the idea that it was real footage simply because it was shot in black and white and that somehow lent it more legitimacy. Having the film as a whole in black and white accents the harsh nature of the world in which the three boys live, and illustrates the lack of choices and stark reality of their existence. Again, like during the credits, it also adds a feeling of believability.

The last aspect I’d like to address is the almost complete incomprehensibility of the language. The subtitles do help, but other than what the subtitles told me, and a general sense of what was going on, I really did not know what they were saying. The three friends were bantering with each other as friends do in English, and it was full of contractions and words slurred together and moved around. They also didn’t say much at one time, it went from quick comment to quick comment, and truly if I didn’t have the visual aspect of the film to help me, I’d only be able to figure out that they had said something about Saïd’s sister, or the police were coming, etc.

I can’t wait to watch the rest of the movie – I only watched the first twenty minutes and didn’t want to be influenced by knowing what was going to happen. I am intrigued by the characters and the story line, and I find the plot believable so far and want to know the final outcome. I can genuinely say that in this sense, the artistic purpose of the first twenty minutes of “La Haine” was fulfilled.

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