“I don’t know if its really important, or intelligent even, when people say to me I’m a white Spike Lee, because they said to Spike Lee you’re a black Woody Allen.”
Back in 2011, David Cameron’s Tories seemed intent on recreating 1981 with a return to the three ‘r’s: Royalty, Recession and Riots. Summer in the cities of England saw a wave of civil unrest. Tottenham burned. Manchester was looted. It was a surreal episode in the collapse of neo-liberalism. Social media provided a running commentary as the sound of a 100 sociology dissertations were hastily re-written. None of it seemed quite real. Like many, I was contributing to the debate from the comfort of my living room.
The news coverage reminded me of the opening scenes from LA HAINE were there are scenes of riots played against Marley’s Burnin’ and Lootin’. The film’s action takes place the morning after the night before, over a period of about 20 hours as three friends ruminate on what happened during the rioting and plan revenge against the brutality of the authorities. Vinz, played with charismatic verve by Vincent Cassel, is from a Jewish family. He’s filled with anger about what he witnessed the previous night. Drawing inspiration from Travis Bickle he intends taking the fight to the centre of Paris. He wants to retaliate by killing a cop if one of their friends, Abdel Ichaha, dies. Ichaha is presently recovering from injuries inflicted from heavy-handed police. Saïd, an Arab, is more stoical and tries to calm his friend down. The third character, Hubert, is the most interesting. He’s an afro-French boxer and drug-dealer, who has a brooding intensity and a desire to leave the banlieues, the housing projects, which were created by an ethnic/ social experiment to isolate the working classes and immigrant communities into the suburbs, away from the economic centre of Paris. His gym has been destroyed by the riots and his reaction provides the title: : “La haine attire la haine !”, “hatred breeds hatred.”
They go through a series of episodes, in the manner of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986), where they encounter different people and situations. There are some beautifully composed sequences shot in black and white and accompanied by a thundering hip-hop soundtrack. The appearance of a cow walking through the estate is a wonderfully surreal moment, only Vinz can see it. I like the moment when they refuse to give an interview to the media, saying “we’re not in a zoo” while sitting on a huge, play-ground hippo. The style is not neo-realism and owes more to American popular culture than European cinema. Kassovitz visually quotes from Tarantino in his fetishisation of the gun that Vinz has stolen from a cop. It seems impossibly big, highly reflective and almost like a fourth character in the film. The presence of the gun adds to the intensity. Like Ferris, they call into an art gallery where they encounter hostility from the middle-class patrons. The presence of the gun and their Nike hoodies gives the scene an edgy quality.
Kassovitz’s characters are making a political act by their love of American culture. The French government has strict protectionist policies to stand Canute-like against cultural imperialism. It is an act of transgression that the three characters are engaged in. On its release there was a great deal of controversy in France, not least because the city of love was unhappy about being represented as a place of hate. It was based on a real-life incident where a police man shot a young man at point-blank because he was riled by his words.
The film has become almost forgotten. Kassovitz is now better known for his performance as Nino Quincampoix in Jeunet’s quirky AMELIÉ (2001). Its a great pity because it remains relevant and prescient in anticipation of what happens when authority treats its citizens with contempt. Unlike many films from this period, it looks like it could have been made today.