Re -- La Francophonie

By Gerda Bikales
Volume 6, Number 3 (Spring 1996)
Issue theme: "Straight thinking on immigration"

The hit movie everyone in Paris talked about last summer is not yet gone from the scene. It no longer packs them in in the large cinemas of the Champs Elysee, but it continues to be shows daily at a small theater near the Centre George Pompidou, headquarters for all that is new and chic and with-it. And now, 'La Haine' can be seen in the United States, where it is enjoying a limited distribution to favorable reviews under the title 'Hate,' a literal trans;ation.

The film opened a year ago to tremendous publicity, having won the 'Best Director' award at the Cannes festival for its young director, Mathieu Kassovitz. The stark black-and-white treatment of life in the immigrant suburbs of Paris, presented in the style of a documentary, attracted immediate and sustained attention.

To twell his story Kassovitz has chosen three protagonists, young men from immigrant familieswho live in public housing projects on the outskirts of the city. The movie follows them fro twenty-four hours after a local disturbance and confrontation with police that resulted in the death of a well-known neihghborhood troublemaker. To give the viewer a sense of time going by, scene changes are punctuated with a digital display announcing the time of the action.

The main characters represent different worlds within the immigrant community Said, a wiry and voluble young Arab of North African descent; Vinz, a tall and nervouis Jew from a religious family of unspecified background; and Hubert, an athletic and engaging Black African. To avoid the sin of stereotyping, the film mixes up the usual expectations it is the Black who is the most thoughtful and considerate in this trio, and the Jew who is the most impulsive and violent. To their credit, the actors performing these roles manage to rise above ethnic symbolism, breathing life and reality into the characters.

What is the story of 'Hate?' Who hates whom? It's difficult to say. Vinz, Said and Hubert live in an environment in which love and civility are hard to come by. They are marked by an inability to relate to their families, to their suburban ghetto community, to the wider French world represented by Paris, just a subway ride away. The film seems to be a variation on the 'buddy' genre, and yet these buddies are not good at relating to one another, either. There is a lot of compulsive talk - talk for the sake of hearing oneself talk - but little communication. It is implied that the police are both the haters and the hated, yet ambiguities abound. The police are shown as truly hateful - pleasant and helpful when dealing with the Parisian bourgeoisie; brutally devoid of any notion of civil rights in their handling of these alienated young people. No less than the suspects they are roughing up, the police too are dehumanized - mindless and out-of-control. In some encounters with authority one can't really tell whether the antagonists are plainclothes policemen dressed as thugs or a rival gang of ruffians.

The story is simple three young men from a 'disadvantaged' suburb, excited by a recent shooting, wander through a bleak landscape of burned out buiuldings, broken glass, graffiti and garbage. Eventually they find a gun and the outcome from then on is never in doubt. The screen is filled with action, some of it violent, all of it pointless. The thrill of action is an antidote against the pain of inner emptiness and disaffection that eats at these young people.

The film meanders through several memorable scenes that allow for rich character development and lift the production out of the ordinary. The most startling scene takes place in a public toilet, where the group is greeted by a little old man emerging from a stall. In just a few seconds he tells them in Yiddish-accented French about a friend whose modesty in bathroom usage had doomed him to freeze to death during the Holocaust. What starts as bathroom humor turns quickly to tragedy. Like the viewers, the protagonists are at once touched and incomprehending.

In another scene, the young men decide to wander into an art gallery where a reception is in sull swing. They cause not a ripple among the sophisticated crowd of gallery habitues. Noticing some attractive young ladies, Hubert is delegated to approach them. The women are initially receptive to the imagined charms of these rough-and-tumble boys who don't know the conventions of cocktail party chatter. They quickly become unwelcome guests who are expelled with the help of the local constable.

French critics have remarked that the film is heavily influenced by American rap videos, especially the anti-police songs of recent years, such as Ice-T's 'Copkillers.' Certainly Americans will be familiar with the poverty portrayed in crammed public housing apartments, decaying streets and the quasi-uniform of baggy pants, knit caps, baseball jackets and expensive sneakers. But to this moviegoer 'La Haine' brings back echoes of a much earlier European classic, 'La Dolce Vita,' which bespoke of the ennui and emptiness of the then-new privileged class of celebrities with their hangers-on at the dawn of a new age of affluence. Those stylish Romans may have looked for their thrills in elegant night clubs and ancient castles, playing with the occult rather than guns, but the frenzied attempt to escape from a spiritual void is the current that powerfully runs through both these films.

Since 'La Haine' was released, talk about the problems of the immigrant suburbs has escalated, largely because of an alarming increase in school violence that has temporarily shut down several high schools and, for the first time, has brought police into others. For the French this is a shocking development for until recently the schsools have been able to maintain a modicum of courtesy even as academic standards slipped. In response to a badly deteriorating situation, the Chirac government plans to make major investments in job-creation schemes in some 700 'hot' suburbs. Will it work? If the American experience is any guide, large infusions of money are likely to yield but very modest gains at best. The truth is that we don't know how to give meaning to other people's lives. We can't seem to buy it with money, nor to will it with good intentions. And until we do, we can expect the world of 'La Haine' to spread.