Intensely gripping and unapologetic in its approach to contemporary France, 'La Haine' is a stark, bleak portrait of the impoverished youth living in the banlieues of Paris. With a trenchant incisiveness into social unrest and disillusionment, the gritty, documentary-style lens of cinematographer Pierre Aïm sheds a light on the little-known housing-projects in the outskirts of the City of Lights. It's a broader look of the famous city commonly thought of as representing the height of culture and sophistication, exposing a side of the capital often ignored, even by its own citizens. Following three young, wayward friends the day after a violent riot left their neighborhood in shambles, the black-and-white drama is a powerful commentary on racial discrimination, poverty and immigration.
Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, the film shares similar themes with Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' and John Singleton's 'Boyz n the Hood.' It provides a voice for a voiceless minority, capturing the attitudes and concerns of the youth in a way that's as mesmerizing as it is frightening. And like those directors, Kassovitz takes his time developing his characters through various conversations and encounters which are more heated than the previous. Even at its most innocent — a holocaust survivor shares a memory about going to the bathroom — the dialogue of the characters seems to come from a deep-rooted sense of resentment, animosity and frustration. Slowly escalating to an electrifying moment of startling explosiveness, the filmmakers confront the many complexities which lead to acts of violence.
The one day in the life tale commences as a series of unrelated, unimportant intervals of time as the three friends essentially lounge about their neighborhood with nothing to do. They rag on one another like most young men do while also talking nonsense of others living in their district. They hang out on rooftops where a barbeque party hints that life in this area moves on, trying to secure some kind of normalcy. And most poignantly, they sit, completely bored, listening to a kid rambling on about a 'Candid Camera' episode that suddenly turned violent. These seemingly unconnected, languid and very much trivial events signal a very sad truth about the boys' existence. Life in this neighborhood is not only unproductive but feels pointless and without purpose — in effect, creating a sense of meaninglessness that is overwhelming, extinguishing any desire to escape.
As experienced through the eyes of these three friends, the banlieues is place for the unwanted, the heavily marginalized and those relegated to the fringes of society, generally by no fault of their own. Vinz (Vincent Cassel in his mind-blowing breakout performance) is a Jew and the most vocal of the bunch, fueled by a great deal of bottled rage and a need to direct it somewhere or at someone. Hubert (Hubert Koundé in a phenomenal portrayal that signifies hope and optimism) is an Afro-French gym owner who also deals drugs on the side so that his family can pay bills. He's the philosopher of the group, driven by aspirations of leaving the neighborhood but who also feels trapped by the need to survive the violence and poverty around him. Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui in an equally powerful performance) is a North African Muslim who works as the balance between the two and tries to ground them by quelling their anger.
Their lives are brought into a new perspective when Vinz discovers a cop's handgun, brewing a false impression of power that's further motivated by a friend's brutal beating at the hands of the police. Feelings of retribution versus finding ways of escaping self-destructive images imposed by society are at the heart the film's effectiveness. Mathieu Kassovitz's 'La Haine' is an immensely striking and intensely moving drama on the violence and hate infecting contemporary society, suggesting, to some extent, plainly visible inequality, feelings of hostile marginalization and a lack of cultural identity play a significant root cause in the hostility. Taken a step further, it is a troubling and highly complex issue, coming down ultimately to the actions, decisions and responses of the individual and can't always be blamed to one, single source.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'La Haine' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #381) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 20-page booklet with pictures of the film and production. It also features an excellent essay entitled "Arts, Politics, and the Banlieue" by Ginette Vincendeau and a review by Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras which originally printed in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
According the accompanying booklet, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was made with the supervision of director Mathieu Kassovitz from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. The results are extraordinary, with a high-def presentation that's faithful to the intentional, stylized photography of Pierre Aïm. With a noticeable but very thin layer of grain, the movie has a bleak, gritty, documentary-like appeal that feels realistic and spontaneous. It's unapologetically ugly, but a significant improvement nonetheless to previous home video releases.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the black-and-white video comes with excellent contrast and resolution. Whites are clean and vibrant, giving the image with a brilliant crispness that's eye-catching, while clarity of background info remains superb and plainly visible. Black levels are inky rich with excellent details in the grayscale, providing the photography some decent, appreciable depth. Although there are a few scenes softer than others, which is the result of the cinematography, overall definition is first-rate and distinct with close-ups that are revealing and lifelike. It's a terrific presentation for a wonderfully gripping drama.
Like the video, this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack was remastered from the original sources, which means the separate audio-mix tracks just prior to the final master mix. And the results are once again outstanding.
Dialogue is highly intelligible and very nicely retained front and center. The soundstage has a terrifically welcoming presence, with a great deal of warmth and fidelity, even in many of the silent moments. The mid-range is extensive and room-penetrating, delivering amazing clarity detail during the film's high points. The low-end complements the rest of the soundtrack with a deep, potent bass, giving the few action sequences some punch. The hip-hop music, in particular, comes with a good deal of palpable depth while filling speakers with cleanly separated highs and mids, such as the DJ scratching scene. The rears are also surprisingly active with some convincing ambient effects, like city noise, and flawless directionality, like airplanes flying overhead, making this is an amazing and highly engaging lossless mix.
All the same bonus features from Criterion's 2007 DVD release are ported over for this Blu-ray edition.
In the world of urban cinema, Mathieu Kassovitz's 'La Haine' ranks as one of the most powerful portraits of street violence and urban youth, along with Lee's 'Do the Right Thing,' Singleton's 'Boyz n the Hood,' Meirelles's 'City of God' and Fukunaga's 'Sin Nombre.' Unapologetic and trenchantly incisive, the film follows three friends in their emotional journey through feelings of meaninglessness, retribution and frustration with their marginalized social status. The Blu-ray from Criterion comes with an excellent picture quality and an equally impressive audio presentation. Supplements are the same collection as the 2007 DVD, but the overall package offers a noticeable improvement and comes highly recommended.