I first saw this film two years ago, and the image that stayed with me was that of a DJ in a Parisian banlieue mixing an anti-cop rap track with Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” as the camera swooped slowly over the whole neighborhood.
(It begins about 56 seconds into this clip.)
In a film that brings marginalized characters into the center, this musical combination provides the perfect symbol: a feature of maligned urban resistance united with the typically French classic of personal defiance. Though French racial politics may be divided into “gaulois” and “autres” – those whose lineage was around during the time of the Romans, and everyone else – these tracks together remind us that no matter what their ethnic origin, people who revolt against unjust authority in fact participate in a grand French tradition (for reference, see “1789”).
French culture celebrates the results of that revolution, from “liberté, égalité, and fraternité” to what must rank among the most aggressive national anthems, the Marseillaise (“May a tainted blood / Drench our furrows!”). The gruesome struggle that made these possible, however, is long in the past; if your car was torched during the French Revolution, you aren’t still around to complain about it.
By contrast, the characters and events in La Haine challenge a status quo that is alive and comfortable. Through connecting this struggle to Edith Piaf’s signature song, however, the director Mathieu Kassovitz affirms the side of resistance as an authentically French one. He raises the question of whether, in 200 years, the French will celebrate the banlieue riots that kept their country honest in the face of rising xenophobia and racism as they now celebrate Bastille Day.
This complex film casts doubt on that proposition as well; the violence in the film is impulsive and often directed at the wrong people. The characters’ method of protest is incoherent at best and senselessly destructive at worst. Of the three friends, only Hubert, a boxer who is physically capable of violence but condemns its use, is conscious of these flaws in his community’s mindset.
Although Hubert functions as the film’s conscience, Kassovitz’s screenplay continually moves away from simplistic archetypes. It becomes clear to the viewer that the conditions in which these characters live virtually guarantee the destruction of life, property, and moral codes. The irrational logic behind the boys’ methods of protest results directly from senselessness that characterizes their world.
La Haine is an ambitious film skillfully executed. What might have been a depressing, uniformly gritty liberal-guilt film instead invigorates its audience with humor, singularly French surreal symbols (“What is the significance of the cow?” people all over the internet ask), and a depth of knowledge about its subject’s social ramifications as well as its electrifying dramatic potential. In realizing that potential, Mathieu Kassovitz and the cast and crew of La Haine have created an iconic film that ranks among the best of the country it analyzes.