The Peripheral Habitats and Social Alienation of La Haine

La Haine (EN: Hate) (1995, dir. Matthieu Kassovitz) is a film about habitats as both a physical and sociological space. The space that the characters live represents both a tool of state oppression, as well as a space reclaimed and liberated by the marginalized inhabitants. Fundamentally, La Haine is a tragedy; following three young men whose futures have all been robbed from them, and how their desperate attempts to take back some of their autonomy is met by fatal consequences. As they travel from their neighborhood to central Paris, they reveal how one’s environment –one’s habitat–reflects their personality as well as their social condition. The tragedy stems from the violence that is enacted on these men when they try to reclaim, expand, or escape their environments.

La Haine begins in the poor commune of Muguet, the day after the neighborhood was destroyed by riots. The rioting was a response to the police beating a local man to the point of putting him in critical condition. Three men from Muguet– Said, an Arab; Vinz, a Jew; and Hubert, a black man– navigate their day after the riot. Vinz reveals that during the riot, he got his hands on a cop’s gun, and he intends on using it to kill a cop as revenge.

Muguet is shown as a far-from-ideal place to be; The film is set the day after a riot, resulting in cars, homes, and businesses being burnt down. Throughout the film, we are constantly seeing the results of the previous night’s carnage. Other than the fallout from the riot, we also see this community being plagued by over-policing, racism, and a general malaise. Yet, despite all of this, it is the closest thing our protagonists have to a true home. Unlike the stark second half of the film, the scenes in Muguet feature wide shots, framing our protagonists with other members of their community, and notably, their families. All three protagonists are seen interacting with members of their immediate families, as well as friends and neighbors. Said and Vinz are constantly getting into spats and confrontations with their families and neighbors. Even if these interactions are not always pleasant they still lend an authenticity to the character dynamics that are absent in the second part of the film. 

The filmmaking goes to hyper-real extents to show how ingrained these characters are into their habitats, and vice versa, through its use of graffiti. All three of the character introductions feature their names literally written into their environments, and throughout the scenes in the banlieu, we see crude jokes and phrases spray-painted on walls which mirror the characters’ dialogue. For instance, the characters are constantly insulting and making jokes about each others’ mothers, a common motif expressed by much of the graffiti in the neighbourhood. Despite their habitat being an extension of an oppressive system, it is the only home they’ve got, and the film shows us just how much they have made it their home.

I often had trouble identifying why these scenes felt so familiar to me. Like Said, Vinz, and Hubert, I also grew up in a peripheral suburban area, but I always believed that was where the similarities ended. Growing up in the West Island, a colloquial name for the more affluent suburbs west of Montreal, I can’t honestly profess to know what it is like to experience poverty, nor can I claim to understand the racism and over-policing that the characters experience. Thinking about this more, I realised that it wasn’t the socio-economic factors that I related to, but rather to the simplicity of their daily existence. The experience of sitting in a park, because there is nowhere else to go that doesn’t require spending money, is what I found to be so familiar to me. I grew up in a car-dependent American-style sprawling suburb, and without a car there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. All that my friends and I were able to do was loiter in parks and talk about nothing. The only thing to do was to escape from our environment, and flee into the city, a place that represented freedom and autonomy for me. My experience moving to the city highlights the different levels of privilege between myself and the characters in La Haine. For one, the suburbs I come from are excluded from the urban centre wilfully, rather than by force of an oppressive system. Secondly, while the city represented an escape from alienation for me, it is defined by a perverse level of brutality and insanity for Said and co. as they attempt to fit into mainstream Parisian culture.

After Vinz brandishes the weapon in a confrontation with the police, he, Said, and Hubert take the train to Paris to lay low. While in Paris, they have a series of bizarre, unsettling, and violent encounters. Before returning home, Vinz decides he is unable to take someone’s life, and gives his gun over to Hubert. However, once they return to the banlieu, Vinz is accosted by the police and shot to death. The two halves of the film act as thesis and antithesis,; with half set in the banlieu showing the daily conditions the men live in, and the half set in Paris showing the consequences the men face when they try to overcome these conditions.

The language of filmmaking shifts as soon as the trio arrive in Paris. The first half of the film prominently features wide shots, framing the trio alongside friends from the neighbourhood. One of the last scenes in the banlieu ends with a helicopter shot strafing over a lively courtyard as an anthem exclaiming “fuck the police” plays throughout the banlieu, captivating the solidarity held amongst the banlieu’s residents. The first shot in Paris presents an antithesis to the prior established visual strategy. We see the protagonists hanging out on an overlook, in front of a backdrop of a typical Parisian street. A dolly zoom quickly stretches and distorts the backdrop, literally separating the men from their environment. Said, Vinz, and Hubert do not belong here. The scenes that follow show the men becoming disconnected from the society around them, and from each other. As encounters with men musing about their dead comrades, coked-up gun-toting drug dealers, and racist cops emphasise the cruel and chaotic nature of this unfamiliar place. 

In an attempt to make sense of this crazy place, the protagonists use graffiti as an assertion of power. They tag territory to claim as their own. The best example of this is in Paris, when Said vandalizes a billboard, changing the phrase “le monde est à vous” (“the world is yours”) to “le monde est à nous.” (“The world is ours”).

They desperately want to claim their piece of this world as their own; a response to their homes and futures being taken from them. French society claims to grant these men liberty, equality, and fraternity, condescendingly telling them, “the world is yours,” but this world can never truly belong to them without the autonomy and self-determination that Paris fails to extend to them. 

The suffering that the boys feel is normal for young men of their age, especially given their oppressive conditions. It is what makes the characters so relatable; even if they don’t always make the right decisions, I can always understand where they are coming from. At the end of the film, Vinz is killed by a racist system that can’t allow him to explore or act on his suffering. Vinz ultimately chooses the path of non-violence, but it doesn’t matter to a police force that regards Jewish people, such as himself, as inherently criminal. As a 3rd generation Chinese immigrant, this aspect of the film has evolved for me over time. With the increase in hate crimes against Asian-Canadians since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hostile portrayal of Paris in La Haine feels more and more real. It makes the anger that these characters have even more understandable.

La Haine perfectly captures how one’s environment can reflect their angst back at them. The Paris of La Haine exceeds the day-to-day alienation that many people feel by showing how a hostile and racist system uses brutality to keep individuals subjected to the margins, both physically and socially. The film resonates with me because it reflects my own alienation back at me by using individual struggles and cultural contexts that are unfamiliar. La Haine taps into a sense of alienation that is not limited to its particular context. While the degree and specificity of these characters’ suffering is not something that everyone has experienced, the feeling of alienation caused by one’s environment is universal. It uses this universal experience to create empathy for these men’s struggles, and through this empathy I realize I am not alone in my alienation. 

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