In this video essay I will explore the presentation of Paris, including the Banlieues (the suburbs on the outskirts of central Paris) in Michael Kassovitz’s La Haine in comparison to the American Hollywood, and French film presentation of the city to highlight the stark differences that come together to ultimately offer a rejection of the Parisian beauty and allure one would conventionally attribute to the city of lights.
I was particularly interested in coming to understand that Michael Kassovitz’s presentation of Parisian society was through the eyes and experiences of individuals that we can think of as not quite French, and certainly not Parisian. La Haine seems to clearly make the black-blanc-beur grouping, which at the time had been used as a racial slur towards these ethnic minorities through its three central characters, Hubert (Hubert Koundé) who is black, Vinz (Vincenet Cassel) who is white Jewish and Said (Saïd Taghmaoui) who is suggested to be of African or Arabian decent, kind of modelling those that are considered ‘other’ within French society at the time. This racial grouping is also representative of the people living in the Banlieue, and offers a stark contrast between the first half of the film that takes place in the Chanteloup les Vignes in Yvelines, France, and the second half of the film that takes place mostly in central Paris, filled with predominantly white, French people, before ending back in the same Banlieue.
What became clear through my research, was that La Haine was functioning within France’s 1990’s film ‘movement’1, Jeune Cinéma Français. Joe Hardwick defines this ‘movement’ as ‘synonymous with relatively low-budget, director-driven and character-centred films which have been read as bringing to French cinema a new kind of realism in the very personal stories they recount, which are often set against the backdrop of the fracture sociale of late twentieth century French society.’2 La Haine demonstrates this ‘fracture sociale’ (which is explained in the video essay) through the trio of boy’s clear alienation and disenfranchisement with Paris, particularly evident through this kind of refusal of Parisian allure, taking landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and presenting them in a way that rejects its previous construction as a place of light and beauty. La Haine seems to offer something distinctly ‘other’, and mundane within Paris’ city centre signified through how much of the second half of the film takes place inside, and even the use of tight framing making the scenes taking place outside seem claustrophobic and the streets maze-like. Even in the Banlieue Hubert, Vinz and Said compare themselves to animals being watched in a zoo. We can also see the strange and violent encounters that Hubert, Vinz and Said experience particularly in the city centre, I think, uncharacteristically present Paris as the kind of source of the issues raised throughout La Haine.
This idea is framed from the beginning of video essay through a clearly inspired Martin Scorsese lens, that can be seen ideologically to be quite similar to La Haine, even down to an imitation of Taxi Driver’s (1976) ‘You talking to me’ mirror scene through the character of Vinz seeming to align himself with a Travis Bickle character. This is not to be reductive to the overall anti establishment message of La Haine, which offers Paris as a city, much like Taxi Driver’s New York, that needs to be ‘flushed down the fucking toilet’.
Where this recognition of La Haine within the ‘movement’3 of Jeune cinema Francais is most clear is when compared to the presentation of Paris in other films, namely those of Hollywood in the 1940’s and 50’s such as Casablanca (1942), An American in Paris (1952) and Funny Face (1957), and of French New Wave films such as The Red Balloon (1956), The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960). I will be using these well known French films, and American films set and shot in Paris, to clearly showcase this divide, both in colour and black and white, and will thus be exploring La Haine mostly aesthetically. It is worth noting that I will show the romanticised, almost magical realism of the Paris in these films mentioned above, but will also be using such as examples of a Paris thought to be a place of mystery and beauty, set against the dark reality experienced by the trio of boys in La Haine. This is even reflected by La Haines use of darker blacks and shadows in comparison to Breathless or Casablanca’s use of monochrome for example, which seem to offer lighter blacks and greys, creating a softer visual aesthetic style.
There are certain similarities which I draw from Sue Harris’ writing on ‘Renoir’s Paris’ to Kassovitz’s presentation of Paris in La Haine, such as, ‘the will to document the “real” Paris of which he (Renoir) is both a product and an unwitting cinematic ambassador’.4 She also talks of this tension between authenticity and mythology in relation to Renoir’s work which I think can be applied to La Haine in the way that Kassovitz offers these moments of magical realism such as the encounter with the cow, and Vinz imagining shooting the two white policemen, whilst clearly attempting to showcase what he thinks of as an authentic depiction of Paris to Hubert, Vinz and Said, both within the Banlieue and once they are within the city centre. Whilst I recognise I am not covering Renoir’s work, Harris’ ideas offer an excellent framing that can be linked nicely to a romanticised presentation of Paris existing at the same time as a rejection of such. Harris’ writings on ‘Renoir’s Paris’ is helpful then, in drawing out Paris as this city of juxtaposition, as both a place of love, but also of hate.
Whilst the content, and the ending of La Haine has perhaps offered the most debate and consideration, I think Kassovitz’s presentation of Paris aesthetically provides an untapped and particularly interesting area to explore in a video essay. In further considering such a presentation of the ‘city of lights’, films after 2000 such as Before Sunset (2004), Paris Je’Taime (2006), and Ratatouille (2007) are also included amongst other action films to suggest that a kind of romanticised, magical offering of Paris has continued to be a focal point of films set in Paris since La Haine’s release. The structuring of the video essay will attempt to function most clearly by using constant juxtaposition, evident through the clips and themes present within those clips. La Haine seems, in this respect, to offer Hate both towards a city that is confusing and increasingly alien to the boys, and towards a governmental system that they view as corrupt on its decent and ultimate arrival at chaos and disorder, whilst the other films engaged with, seem in opposition to show Love, and present a city full of world renowned landmarks, beauty, and wonder.
1. (Jeancolas 1999, p. 15) in Joe Hardwick, The vague nouvelle and the Nouvelle Vague: The Critical Construction of le jeune cinéma français, Modern & Contemporary France, DOI: 10.1080/09639480701802666 (2008)
2. ibid p. 53
3. Jeancolas in Hardwick’s The vague nouvelle and the Nouvelle Vague: The Critical Construction of le jeune cinéma français
4. Harris, Sue, and Queen Mary. “Renoir’s Paris: The City as Film Set.” South Central Review, vol. 28, no. 3, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011, pp. 84–102, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41261503. p. 8