LA HAINE (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)

La haine (Hate), which brought Mathieu Kassovitz, in his twenties, the directorial prize at Cannes, centers on three friends living in a Parisian housing project. A Jew, an Arab and a black African, the youths represent groups that a culturally self-involved society prefers to keep at its outermost fringe. They are “kept” there in rather attractive style, though; Americans may have trouble identifying these boys, by American standards, as deprived, given the impressive livability of their subsidized housing. Nevertheless, the boys themselves feel alienated.

Their alienation consolidates their sense of kinship. Strengthening both are their constant confrontations with a common antagonist: the police, whose harassing forays into the projects suggest an invading army, a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. (Again, the French police are Milquetoast compared to their American counterparts.) Now the police are holding and interrogating a buddy of theirs. When this comrade dies in police custody, one of the boys, in chance possession of a dropped police pistol, explodes; but, in the intriguing way Kassovitz portrays this train of events, the precise causality remains murky, the detained boy’s death a nearly subliminal trigger, just one more contributor to an incendiary atmosphere. But it’s the straw that breaks the Jewish boy’s back.

Let’s get out of the way an inference preposterously drawn: that this boy is Kassovitz himself, who is also Jewish. Mathieu is, in fact, the son of Peter Kassovitz, the photographer and filmmaker. His has been no disadvantaged life. Still, Mathieu can certainly relate, making his Jewish character a surrogate along the lines of “under other circumstances, this could have been me.” After all, Mathieu’s father is a Hungarian immigrant, and French anti-Semitism runs deep. But, in literature and film, biographical or autobiographical equations generally fail to hold true; with absolute justice, Tennyson insisted that the speaker of In Memoriam wasn’t entirely himself, and Orson Welles maintained that Citizen Kane wasn’t William Randolph Hearst. Not that Hearst could grasp the accuracy of Welles’s declaration. Or wanted to.

Moreover, such speculation distracts from Kassovitz’s finely suggestive analysis of how a social situation of violence evolves. Indeed, his exposition in this regard greatly improves on its botched antecedent in Spike Lee’s desultory Do the Right Thing (1989), one of a number of films that Kassovitz draws upon. If nothing else, La haine functions as a corrective to the American film, suggesting what Lee’s gaudy extravaganza might have achieved had Lee been less interested in parading pretty pictures and venting his chic bile, and more interested in actually detailing an instance of inner-city violence. Lee, if he has the capacity to do so, could learn a lot from the French kid. Other filmmakers also could.

But not, were he alive, Akira Kurosawa, whose Stray Dog (1949) is another of the films influencing Kassovitz’s. It is from the violent plot of this brash, moody police thriller that Kassovitz has drawn the stray police pistol; but the allusion is wholly unwarranted. For La haine leaves alone the kind of postwar social analysis that commands Kurosawa’s interest. Kassovitz isn’t after a complex understanding of the pop-off situation—the point of violence—that he, unlike Lee, so closely and admirably describes. Rather, he pleads a case and a cause.

Shot plainly, in black and white, the result is agreeably minor. La haine is a simple, highly watchable documelodrama that builds casually to an explosive finale. It’s also a testy film, tinged with arrogance; a part of its youthful charm is how deftly it draws one into the circle of its bias. Our heads may carp that the sort of kids whom the film follows would, in reality, have something to do with the rotten course of their lives; but the fiction of their total victimization the film, by its lightness and lack of self-pity, makes exceedingly easy to give in to. La haine reminds me of an East Side Kids bottom-of-the-bill feature from the 1940s—in a more sophisticated incarnation, of course.

Kassovitz’s sincerity and sympathy, however, do not cover everything. Given the film’s essential naturalism, the mini-gang’s multiethnic composition is a tad convenient. Moreover, crass stereotyping compounds the convenience; we are given a Jew who is private and moodily intense, a sociable and foolishly fun-loving Arab, and a gooily mama-lovin’ black African. Of greater consequence than this cornball distribution of familiar traits, though, is the insufficient attention that the film pays to the dynamic of the boys’ increasingly incorrigible behavior—on the mistaken assumption, perhaps, that a full and open airing of these brats would take an unjust society off the hook. On the contrary, the film’s single-mindedness—its refusal to allow these children even the slightest complicity in their own behavior and their downfall—calls greater attention to its reductionism and leads directly to the film’s most grievous mistake: after nicely entertaining us, at the last La haine “goes didactic,” with an absolutist coda referring to a civilization going down for the count. Ho-hum, the sky is falling.

This conclusion is just slapped on—much as, much earlier, the junior-grade moral crisis, where the boys ponder whether to exchange their “play-tough” mischief for decisive violence, is simply pounded in.

Kassovitz has a lot to teach Spike Lee. Also, he has a lot to learn himself.

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