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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: La Haine


LA HAINE (Three and a Half Stars)
France: Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995 (Criterion Collection)

La Haine. Three street-tough, street-wise young guys from the banlieue (in the poorer districts and projects outside Paris)—a French Jew named Vinz (played by Vincent Cassel), an African, Hubert (Hubert Kounde) an Arab, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui)—wake up one morning, hook up with each other, hit the streets. The night before, there was a widely-reported police shooting, of a young beur, or second generation North African, and it’s made them all edgy. Vinz is boiling. Said is irritable. Hubert, a boxer, is the level-headed one, cooler.

They’re volatile, but good buddies, with no time for sentiment. They hang out. They get into fights. They find a gun. (Not as easy in Paris, but…) They ride to Paris on the train, look up some outlaw buddies. Eventually, night falls. Death or danger are imminent: one of the guys maybe , or more, or maybe somebody else. We can feel a cold breath stirring the air. A bad wind. France. Paris. The banlieue. 1995.

La Haine (or Hate) is the legendary ’95 feature debut of the young French actor turned writer-director Mathieu Kassovitz (in his 20s when it was released, as were his three leads), who based his story on the chaos and death of real shootings, and real riots, and real deaths in the early ‘90s, which he witnessed. It is a remarkable movie, with a hypnotic grip. It burns itself into your memory. The actors are unforgettable. The black-and-white, classically framed photography (by Pierre Aim and camera operator Georges Diane) is haunting, searing.  The theme is anti-violence. The action stings.

Only the dialogue, which seems at least partly (and maybe wholly) improvised, is an occasional drawback. It sometimes sounds more like three good young actors, riffing off each other in real surroundings, rather than three street kids, talking trash—though not oddly enough in the most artificial moment of all, when Vinz borrows Robert De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” diatribe from Taxi Driver and hurls it at a mirror. That’s where we can see that, for this movie, for these moviemakers and actors, Brando and Scorsese and De Niro  are as important as the fire all around them. No wonder Jodie Foster loves La Haine.

Time has passed. The streets are more violent. La Haine has survived. Kassovitz has never improved on it—yet. That’s because, even if this movie isn’t totally real, it makes you feel a kind of reality, feel as if you’re in a banlieue of the mind, as if you can see the world that Kassovitz and his guys dreamed up, in the hour before dawn. The light. You wake up. You find your friends. You hit the streets. Hate is a dog at your heels, a gun on the street, a drumbeat, a heartbeat, a scream. Someone is shot. Someone will die. But when? How? Why?  Where are we? Paris… La Haine. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Commentary by Kassovitz; Introduction by Jodie Foster; Documentary Ten Years of La Haine; Deleted and extended scenes, with afterwords by Kassovitz; Production footage; Behind-the-scenes photo gallery; Booklet with an essay by Ginette Vincendeau and an appreciation by Costa-Gavras. 

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon