Thursday, July 12, 2007

DVD Review (from my current DVD column in FLAUNT)


LA HAINE (France, 1995) B&W, 97 minutes. DVD. Starring Vincent Cassell, Hubert Kounde, Said Taghmaoui.
      This year’s presidential election in France showed the country still reeling from the aftershocks of the massive civil unrest that ripped through the country two years ago. Triggered by a fatal, still murkily controversial encounter between three teenagers and the police, the subsequent chaos – symbolized by the hundreds of random cars set on fire by rioters over the course of many nights – lasted over three weeks, bringing international attention to France’s unemployment crisis among its youth (particularly those of African and North African descent), it’s not-so-latent racism, and the exacerbated difficulties inherent in forging a truly multi-cultural society. The vented rage and widespread destruction was just one more bit of proof that the complicated issues surrounding immigration are global issues. But Francophile cinephiles felt like they were experiencing a strange déjà vu.
      In 1995, when then 29-year-old writer-director Mathieu Kassovitz dropped his film La Haine (Hate) on the world, it was exactly akin to throwing a brick through a pristine museum window. For those who saw the prescient film, and took heed of its message, the image of France that had long been by much of the world and by much of France itself, was shattered. Kassovitz took the viewer to the suburbs of the country, the banlieue districts, where housing projects are home to second (and now third) generation children of assorted immigrants. They’re birthright Frenchmen who are excluded from the vaunted, if not mythological, largesse and progressiveness of their country. In a bonus introductory interview included with the fantastic Criterion issue of La Haine, Jodie Foster, whose production company helped the film secure a U.S. release, notes that, “It’s about France as it is now, which is something a lot of Americans didn’t know but a lot of French people didn’t either.” (Tellingly, in the way that even the most volatile of social or political issues can be absorbed into the corporate machinery and spit out as entertainment, this same dynamic and milieu were the backdrop for the ludicrous but hugely enjoyable 2004 film District B13, directed by Pierre Morel and co-written by Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri.)
      Though the central friendship of Vinz (Vincent Cassell) a white Jew, Hubert (Hubert Kounde) a black man of African descent, and Northern European descended Said (Said Taghmaoui), is painfully schematic, Kassovitz puts flesh on concept through smart and often very funny writing that may come as a shock to those who only know of the film through its somewhat distorted reputation. The characters are fully drawn, and so is their perfectly captured dead-end life. Jump-starting this post-adolescent coming-of-age-film-cum-road-movie is the introduction of a gun in the mix, which becomes the multi-hued trio’s entryway to a world of high stakes violence and criminality.
      What the Criterion re-issue does first and foremost is remind you what a striking film La Haine is – from the gorgeous black and white film to the carefully composed scenes (which Foster very insightfully comments upon) to the artful use of politically charged music (the soundtrack is stellar), Kassovitz blows you away with his technique. The film is beautifully put together. Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese influences are obvious but also synthesized into the director’s own style, to serve his site-specific story; they’re far evolved beyond the mimicry that lesser directors loop-hole out of by claiming homage. But all of that is put in the service of a timely story that has only become more urgent with the passing of time. And will likely continue to do so. (Criterion)

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