Music Feature

DVD Review: La Haine - Criterion BD Edition

by Piers Marchant
Life inside the Paris projects.

Dir. Mathieu Kassovitz
Score: 7.7

"Hate breeds hate," a young French-African boxer named Hubert (Hubert Koundé) explains to his volatile Jewish friend Vinz (Vincent Cassel). Vinz has been threatening to kill a cop in retaliation if their mutual friend, laid up in a hospital after a vicious police beating, happens to die. But despite the polemic nature of that moment, Mathieu Kassovitz' 1995 French ghetto dirge is anything but preachy. Instead, the B&W feature plays almost as a documentary of a day in the life of three friends -- the third member of the racially integrated trio is Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), an Arab -- as they listlessly spend their time hanging out, smoking strong reefer and arguing with one another up and down the rough streets of a project on the outskirts of Paris.

But what's most noteworthy about the film, newly released on a gorgeous Blu-ray transfer from Criterion, are all the things it's not. It isn't, for example, a rough-and-tumble shoot 'em up, using hyper-violence to engage our hypothalamus even as it decries all the anger and fury of the streets. Nor is it a Do The Right Thing-style diatribe about racial politics -- though the film cleverly inserts several homages to Spike Lee's 1989 classic while also alluding to such American violent classics as Taxi Driver and Scarface. If you would compare Kassovitz' vision, it would be something a bit closer to Larry Clark, without the penchant for teen sex.

Indeed, compared to its far more bloodstained American counterparts, what strikes you watching the film now is its careful restraint. There is the constant undercurrent of tension and threat of violence in the aftermath of the frequent mob uprisings in the projects, and a sustained antipathy towards the vastly ineffectual police force, but by and large the community seem to get along remarkably well. There aren't the petty, pointless arguments and needless bloodshed that you so often see depicted in such films. In part because of the general lack of firearms (when Vinz scores a single stolen gun from a cop, Saïd assures him he'll be the "big man" of the projects as a result); and, one would suspect, because in this part of Paris, everyone has a common enemy -- the cops -- which perversely serves to unite the neighborhood, even as the riots threaten to burn it to the ground.

With his multi-cultural heroes, Kassovitz also plays down the race-baiting angle, notwithstanding the racist cops and a group of skinheads the boys happen to meet late at night on a mostly deserted Paris street. But race-based or no, the hatred from the title, referenced by Hubert, is no less destructive and denigrating. We can despise anyone on one side of the fence or other, Kassovitz suggests, as long as there is a disparity to mark them.

This BD edition also features an audio commentary from director Kassovitz, a doc that brings back together the main cast members a decade after the film's initial release, deleted and extended scenes and a booklet essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.

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