Mathieu Kassovitz’s acclaimed 1995 film La Haine (Hate), which examines the lives of three young men from a housing project outside Paris, begins with its narrator telling the old joke about a guy who, falling from a tall building, repeats to himself, “So far so good … so far so good.” The joke refers to the explosive conditions that were building in France’s suburban housing projects at the time. It’s a little didactic, but it’s only a joke. And it’s not a bad metaphor for France’s willful blindness to the problems of its suburban ghettos, where immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa (and now their children and grandchildren) are garrisoned outside France’s beautiful old cities, literally marginalized. The French government insists that the inhabitants of these ghettoes are “citizens,” as French as anyone, but it lacks either the will or the means to integrate them into the everyday civic and economic life of the nation. “Funny,” the young rioters seem to be saying, “but I don’t feel French.”
At the end of La Haine, just as it’s reaching its violent climax, the narrator reappears and returns to the joke: “It’s about a society falling,” he says. ” ‘So far so good … so far so good … so far so good.’ It’s not about how you fall. It’s about how you land.” As a coda, this is both obvious and muddled. (Of course it’s about a society falling—the whole movie just said that—but how can it be “about how you fall”?) But without this clumsy declamation, it would be easy to view the prophecy in the film’s introductory joke as its own sort of vague metaphor. Yeah, sure, a “specter” is “haunting” France. Whatever. But Kassovitz, it appears, was serious in his prediction about “a society falling,” serious enough to risk looking like a blowhard in restating it. And now, 10 years later, as rioting among just the sort of people Kassovitz portrayed in La Haine heads into its third week on the outskirts of every major French city, it appears he was also right.
But it’s hard to decide how much La Haine’s value as prophecy elevates Kassovitz’s film, because otherwise—though it caused a sensation in France when it first came out and became an unexpected box office hit there—it isn’t very good. La Haine (which is available on DVD only in French and U.K. formats) observes the multiethnic trio of Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), North African Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), and West African Hubert (Hubert Koundré) over a single day. It would be as uneventful as any other day, except that the near-fatal police beating of a youth has sparked a minor uprising in the projects. Still, Kassovitz presents the day’s heightened agitation against a template of boredom and aimlessness. The time flashes across the screen at random intervals: 10:38, 12:43, 14:12. One minute the trio are running from police, or being hassled by the police, or being tortured by the police, the next they are sitting around telling lame jokes and bragging about getting laid. It’s an odd choice, emphasizing how little happens to these guys on a day when so much happens to them.
Saïd is the closest thing to the movie’s eyes, whereas Vinz is its motor, its causal force, and Cassel is an impressive athlete of an actor. Early on, we see him doing the well-worn Travis Bickle shtick—”You talkin’ to me?”—in front of his bathroom mirror. But Kassovitz has actually borrowed Vinz from a different Scorsese movie—Mean Streets, not Taxi Driver. He is De Niro’s Johnny Boy: violent, impulsive, doomed (and, frankly, dumber than a bag of rocks). You just know that, whatever charming Saïd and scrupulous Hubert do to go straight or get rich or just stay out of jail, Vinz is going to blow it for them.
La Haine, which is shot in washed-out black and white, won the directing award at Cannes, and Kassovitz is indeed a natural behind the camera. He was only 27 when he made the film, and you can see him testing out and blending divergent styles—a documentary mode natural to the subject matter (and the film stock) alongside showier, clownier techniques like swooping symmetrical zooms and gawking close-ups. He settles on an effective hybrid, and the film moves gracefully. Ironically, after being credited with bringing some needed vérité back to French cinema, Kassovitz went on to introduce the high-gloss thriller to his native country with Crimson Rivers (Les Rivières pourpres, 2000), before making the lamentable Gothika with Halle Berry. (He’s also, it should be noted, an all-around heartthrob in France, as well as in my own household. He starred with Audrey Tautou in Amélie and is featured in a Lancôme campaign for men’s skin-care products. That’s why my wife thinks he’s so dreamy. He moisturizes.)
Kassovitz’s one problem as a director in La Haine is that he overindulges himself as a screenwriter. There’s already something suspiciously high-minded in the setup of a Jew, an Arab, and a Black as a trio of best friends in an otherwise fractured social landscape, but the script makes it worse by constructing their friendship out of endless empty aggression. La Haine uses the same bantering encounters to both illustrate the pointlessness of their lives and to moon over their prickly solidarity. But instead of being funny or provocative, the banter mainly ranges from vacuous to headache-inducing. It’s like a production of Waiting for Godot where the actors are on crystal meth and speak through bullhorns. After the first couple of yelling matches, you think, this is where somebody punches somebody or shoots somebody and the movie starts, but nothing happens, and then you realize this is what they do. They yell at each other because they love each other. It’s both too cute and not cute enough.
La Haine suffers, finally, from the same weakness that afflicts a lot of supposedly realist film. In its tight, ground-level focus, it’s all trees and no forest. Instead of social analysis, you get sentimentality, a one-sided empathy. Granted, Kassovitz uses strident chumminess rather than melodrama, but the sense of being told what to feel is basically the same. The social and political problems contributing to France’s immigrant problem are complex and possibly intractable, and La Haine gives us wayward but good-hearted kids against legions of evil cops.
I often feel guilty about resisting the emotional pull of well-meaning films like La Haine, especially in the rare instance that they turn out, like La Haine, to be prophetic. But on his Web site, Kassovitz explains that he made the film “with the conviction that the police brutality of the time should be stopped.” This is an admirable sentiment, but as a basis for predicting France’s current social upheaval, it leaves a few important things out, not just France’s rigid, job-stingy economy and its less-than-welcoming political culture, but the deeper matter of whether the French can bear to change these things—which they, in their stubbornly French way, seem to treasure. This means that, in his first time out as a prophet, Kassovitz mainly just got lucky, which means that I don’t have to feel so bad for thinking that La Haine is mainly overrated.