Set in the Parisien projects, Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine shows us a day in the life of three youths (Saïd, Vinz, and Hubert — all of different ethnicities) as they hurdle the repercussions of the community’s riots against the local police from the night before.
To dig into what makes this film such a timeless class, I’ll focus mostly on Kassovitz’s use of dialogue, camera work, and locations to encapsulate the lifestyle these characters are exposed to.
Disclaimer: This delves into almost everything that happens, so that’s your spoiler warning. There is a full upload on YouTube in great quality with the right subtitles when you switch on the captions here.
Because I was unable to find footage with the subtitles printed onto them already, I’ll add in specific quotes where necessary, as well as time stamps relative to the linked upload.
Have you heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: ‘So far so good… so far so good… so far so good.’ How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.
Voiced by Hubert — who is the one character most concerned about his future prospects, and is often the level-headed one in much of the trio’s discourse throughout — the quote he cites is a pivotal backdrop for the entirety of the film’s events.
In reference to this quote, staging becomes a key component, mostly in terms of heights since much of the film revolves around tall apartment complexes.
When Saïd first calls for Vinz, he does so from a pit-like floor central to the surrounding towers that all look inwards on him and each other. When his echoing bellows gain attention, they’re all responded to from the tops of these towers, which is where both Vinz and Hubert reside. And the people confronting Saïd’s shouting all live on these top floors, too. So, instantly, we’re drawn back to the quote.
Paralleling this later is when Hubert goes back home. When he goes to look out of the window at the end of the scene and looks down, both Saïd and Vinz are in and amongst the crowd of youths gathered in the centre of these blocks, which might further indicate how his prospects and his potential, as a boxer, differ from theirs, given the way he was the one to voice the pivotal quote and also addressed his concerns about the lifestyle in the projects to his mother.
Ending that scene is a perfect aerial shot, ascending above the towers and giving us a greater view of the entire area, which is full of the same inverted rings tower blocks over and over — all entirely self-contained and isolated from one another.
This is furthered by one particular scene where we see a lengthy wide shot of the three characters in a pit at the bottom of a Hippo slide, before a small crew of TV reporters appear at the top of the frame to, again, depict the relative social statuses.
When confronting the reporters from within a pit below the road, the theme of anthropomorphism arises with Hubert’s line, “Get out the car. This ain’t Thoiry” — Thoiry being a drive-in safari. (And, if you wanted to go really deep into visual storytelling, you could point to the fact that hippos tie into that.)
These setups are in stark contrast to the fear-driven wastelands that surround the blocks. Seen in two particular scenes from the first half of the film, we watch perfectly-held wide shots of the central characters.
In the case of the first one, Saïd and Vinz walk through a desolate car park where there is nothing in sight. No cars, no anything. All they do is walk, talk and cross paths with two small kids.
In the case of the second, we see similar again but this time fixed onto the characters from the front.
What’s crucial to both scenes, however, is the dialogue. Both scenes’ dialogue exchanges serve to address the focus of general conversation: absurdist violence.
In the first scene, Saïd raves over a line to do with betraying and killing a friend for free.
‘I won’t waste you [their friend] for cash, I’ll do it for free!’ What a killer line! ‘For free!’
In the second scene, as we, this time, slowly zoom in on the four and then just in on the central two (the kid and Vinz), we hear a recollection of something that happened on a show called “Candid Camera” , where, eventually, a celebrity victim’s paranoia led to an outburst of rage.
Kid: They start fighting, and the Candid Camera guys have to break it up. It was a killer punch out.
Vinz: Then what?
Kid: That’s all.
What emphasises the point and makes the two examples alike is that the focus is on the mindless violence and nothing else. It’s only after a cut to the time card and then a flipped-angle perspective that Vinz enquires who the celebrity was, to which the kid replies without any clue.
The flipped angle also parallels the earlier shot of Saïd and Vinz since much of landscape is vacant of life, with the four tucked away in the shadows like small insects — which is a common, subtle anthropomorphism of the characters, and is more bluntly the case when it comes to the police, who are almost exclusively referred to as ‘Pigs’.
Whereas the above highlights violence through dialogue — often shown as more of a front — it’s in the shorter pieces of speech that better illustrate the close-knit nature of the community, like Saïd’s small exchange with the two kids in the car park, as he asks after the brother of one of them.
Furthered by this scene below, the initial tracking shot of the three, here, is disrupted by the piercing sound of a distant motorbike’s exhaust, which brings their entire conversation to a halt as they guess at what kind of bike would make that sound, which speaks to the contained and echo-y nature of their whereabouts.
Saïd: That’s a Yamaha.
Vinz: More like your mum on a Harley.
Hubert: It’s Mohammed’s bike. He fixed the exhaust.
The line referencing Mohammed, and the proceeding scene that sees the three enter a rooftop and Saïd refamiliarise himself with a dozen others, brings you, the viewer, into their world.
These scenes are also portrayed so seamlessly using extensively long takes. The sequence surrounding the motorbike halt lasts for just shy of two minutes, with the alluded-to rooftop scene lasting a whole minute itself.
It gives each scene a feeling of naturality, whcih further helps to shrink our perception of the environment for what it is, compared to how it might seem if there were a dozen wide shots intercut with close-ups. And, by circling from back to front and front to back, the running theme of entrapment is subconsciously ingrained.
As alluded to above and in some of my points from the ‘Heights’ section, the shaping of the settings are often good, subtle indicators of the ways in which different groups of people are confined.
One of the most telling scenes before the mid-film shift into the cityscape is this one.
Taking the metaphor up a notch is how the breakdancers’ stage is limited to a circular cage that is partially taped off. Whilst Vinz and Saïd are stuck on the outside — looking in at the hope that the talented dancers possibly symbolise — Hubert is already in the ring of sorts, as he, like the breakdancers, still has the talent to achieve something.
What’s more, camera placement is used smartly throughout this scene to alternate when any of the three characters are shown to be ‘behind bars’.
Initially, Hubert is seen between these bars during another money trade, as these are the kinds of dealings he’s gotten in trouble for and are the ones he wants to escape from but can’t seem to.
After Saïd had gone over to his sister, Vinz comes towards the cage and the camera tracks his movement towards it from within the cage, which now applies the same effect onto him, and Saïd soon after.
It is then fitting of the world they live in that this is then sharply interrupted by yet another act of conflict between the youths and the police just outside, which leads us onto Paris, the city…
Into the City
As they go to get Saïd’s money, our first shot of the three in the city perfectly encapsulates how detached their lifestyle is from any kind of city-slicker.
A dolly zoom is used to immediately create a visible separation between the foreground and the background, between the hustle and bustle of city life compared to the three youths from the projects. Even though they are there, the life it represents is still very cut off from theirs.
This also occurs much later in the film when they sit in view of the Eiffel Tower where the landmark remains so far distant to them, with this exchange between Vinz and Saïd highlighting just how much of a pipedream central Paris is to them that it’s seen as something “from the movies”.
Saïd: Watch, I’ll switch off the Eiffel Tower. *snaps fingers twice without success*
Hubert: That only works in the movies.
The scene also plays out in stark contrast to how they behave in their own territory as, there, they do nothing but talk aggressively and lie to impress others whilst there’s hardly a vehicle in sight. Yet, here, the noise of traffic is deafening and the protagonists can hardly muster more than a word between the three of them.
During the near-thirty seconds of uncomfortable silence, the time card is used to amplify the amount of time that’s passing.
A Different Kind of Entrapment
In the follow-up scene, which eventually proves to be something of a renewed catalyst for the events that continue to unravel thereafter, the camera work continues to make everything feel continuously claustrophobic as the three are clumped together in a public bathroom.
The camera itself doesn’t really move position, it just follows the guise of the main speakers, keeping at headshot level to maximise the intensity of the two characters’ dispute.
Soon to interrupt their feud, though, is an old man, who, after he steps out from one of the cubicles, recalls a time when he lost a friend of his because he could not keep up with the cattle car that they were living on.
Old man: I once had a friend called Grunwalski. We were sent to Siberia together. When you go to a Siberian work camp, you travel in a cattle car. […]
But it’s hard to relieve yourself, to take a shit. You can’t do it on the train, and the only time the train stops is to take on water for the locomotive. But Grunwalski was shy. […]
So, the train stops and everyone jumps out to shit on the tracks. I’d teased Grunwalski so much that he went off on his own. The train starts moving because it waits for nobody. Grunwalski had a problem: he’d gone behind a bush and was still shitting. So I see him come out from behind the bush, holding up his pants with his hands. He tries to catch up. I hold out my hand, but each time he reaches for it, he lets go of his pants and they drop to his ankles. He pulls them back up, starts running again, but they fall back down when he reaches out for me.
Saïd: Then what happened?
Old man: Nothing. Grunwalski… froze to death.
Similar to the film’s opening quote, this further speaks to the situation these characters inherently find themselves in.
It’s also worth noting how this character is eventually given the freedom of the entire frame during his monologue — he is privileged, as we can see even just by the way he’s dressed, but also in the fact that he’s not forced into the same frame as Vinz, Hubert and Saïd all of the time.
How his speech translates to their situation, in my opinion, is that the cattle car stands for an escape to a better, working life, which this man was fortunate enough to cling on to. Grunwalski being unable to keep up because he constantly has to pull up his trousers could easily be compared with the countless families and neighbourhoods in the projects who are constantly having to make ends meet during their attempts to salvage a better life. Possibly the humour of the anecdote shines a light on how looked down upon these less fortunate people are.
The fact that Saïd consistently calls back to it in relative disbelief as well is potentially a further indicator that, for people in his situation, the train had already left a long time ago.
In a couple of scenes from this, we see similar camera work imposed on them as they try to visit the apartment where Saïd’s money is.
Like earlier with the breakdancers, the three are penned in by the framed doors that surround them. The small space and caged framing all around them and growing frustration following their failure to find the right person inevitably brings out the worst in them as they struggle to find a way into the building, which leads to the three pacing to and from the two camera angles. Hubert and Saïd try to move out towards the exit whilst Vinz keeps moving intensely towards the security camera, trying to escape as if they were caged animals.
The security camera footage Vinz occupies more than any other adds even more to the claustrophobia of the scene as the footage contains the fishbowl effect, which makes the peripheries shrunken and more distorted, which neatly ties into the themes surrounding circularity and confinement.
It is yet another case of them being at the place they want to be, but have no sense of how to get in.
After coming away immensely intimidated by the exuberant ‘Asterix’, they end up without Saïd’s money and descend a spiral staircase with the focus clearly on its shaping.
As they, metaphorically, fall from the top of the building, they land right into the hands of some very aggressive police officers, who soon go on to somewhat torture Hubert and Saïd.
Then, in reference tothe old man’s quote, the setback they suffer for doing very little but appearing inherently troublesome to the police results in them literally missing the last train.
Black and White
An important backbone to the visual storytelling is the use of black and white in clothing.
The police always wear black. So, to avoid standing out, the three, and most others in the projects, always wear black jackets that hide their identity, per se, and innocence, which is represented by their white tops still at least partially visible underneath.
Even more telling is that the costume setups are immersed in the visibly hot temperatures, but such is the extent of their need to blend in and boast status that the youths from the projects all continue to wear dark clothing since they all feel intimidated despite wanting to intimidate the officers.
The times when the main characters wear just white are either when they’re at home and therefore are comfortable.
Or, are in more exposed situations, like when Hubert and Saïd are being beaten. Both of their jackets are off, leaving them only in more brightly-coloured tops, which juxtaposes the beating officers’ all-dark clothing.
What’s more, this particular scene is used to more blatantly illustrate how officers have refined their knack for ruthlessly punishing people forced into the same collective as Hubert and Saïd. This is all happening as the pair of beaters teach it to the younger officer, and so the chain of abuse and prejudice never ends.
Cop #1 (right): You [the new cop] gotta stop in time. You need self-control.
Cop #2 (left): Gotta be a pro.
Cop #1: This takes control. Don’t get mad, it won’t last!
Cop #1: That’s the way, then you relax. But it’s hard to stop in time. You gotta stay in control. That’s the trick.
Roaming free in the streets
In another subtle showing of anthropomorphism, the only time we see wider shots of the three occupying open spaces is in the middle of the night when the city streets are empty. In this sense, they are like foxes as they only come out at night to scavenge.
They eventually attempt to do just this with the carjacking. Staying true to the comparison is how quickly they all flee when the car alarm initially sounds.
What is quintessential to driving the narrative is the involvement of guns.
The officer’s lost gun that Vinz found showcases how a weapon as lethal as that is used as a front and as a way of depicting characters’ vulnerabilities.
Saïd: One thing’s [for] sure… with that piece, you’re the big man.
Being able to threaten someone with a gun gives the characters ultimate power, which is why we see Vinz in the mirror pretending to confront someone and fire a gun at them — with a gunshot’s actual sound often being used to cut between scenes.
Vinz’s decision to take the gun out with him unbeknownst to Hubert is what sparks the feud between them, as Hubert’s more level-headed mindset balances the argument that gun violence won’t solve anything, which he most notably makes a point of in the bathroom scene.
In continuance of the mirror example from above, there is a subtle build towards a real-life incident as the imagined scenarios begin to merge with real-life ones.
Two of the most notable examples come in the cityscape. Firstly through this shot of him facing away from the flare gun shooting, appearing scarred by the fierce reality of it.
Second, later on, is the much more violent and imagined scenario in reaction to the news of Abdel’s death, where his mental retaliation leads him into shooting an uninvolved officer outside of the train station.
The scenario plays out in a more dramatic and theatrical fashion this time, with Vinz going the full way before we’re pulled out of it the same way Vinz is — by Hubert questioning what he’s doing.
The peak of this narrative, and what truly tells us about how violent someone who acts as tough as Vinz is, is when the chance arises for him to actually take action with the gun.
After bumping into the “skinheads” again, where they look to get back at them for Saïd’s remarks towards them, Vinz’s gun threat shoos away all but the one they’d clung onto. When Vinz aims the gun at the man’s head, Hubert wills him on, because he can see through Vinz’s tough-guy persona.
Soon the shots become a back and forth between him and the victim alone as the emotional intensity of the situation begins to eat away at Vinz, for he isn’t the naturally violent person he shows himself to be — his acts of true violence appear to be indirect forms of retaliation.
All of this also makes for quite a direct use of ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ — a dramatic principle that dictates that every element of a story must be necessary. To play true to its name, the common example is that: if a gun is pointed out in one act, it must then come into play later on.
In the case of La Haine, it is expertly used to toy with our emotions; we’re set on a course for the gun to be shot until it isn’t, which fantastically subverts expectations in a way that also completes Vinz’s character arc.
When all appears said and done, the inevitable use of the gun works to both shock us following this initial subversion and to shine a light on the commentary at play as it falls onto Hubert’s shoulders…
The Final Scene
The genius of the final scene is that it draws everything back together.
Vinz gives up the gun to Hubert because he’s come to the realisation that it solves nothing.
Saïd then, like earlier, recites a joke centred around plain violence as he and Vinz walk off into the background once getting back home.
But, staying true to the opening line, as soon as they “land”, they’re mobbed by cops taking issue with them at 6am almost for the sake of it. What then injustices Vinz’s character arc is the officer’s accidental shot of the gun. Threatening Vinz at gunpoint feels so much more natural to the bad cop we’d borne witness to all along.
The deafening silence is then accompanied by another time card that elongates the shock of what’s just happened.
All it leads to is Hubert directly confronting the officer with the lost gun, and, despite all of his words against using guns and how they solve nothing, he is forced into a situation in his home place where retaliation by such feels like the only option.
The brilliance of the final shot is that it captures the essence of the story. The zoom-in beyond Hubert and the cop signify that the film’s commentary is not focused on the who of the matter, it’s focused on the what — and that what is portrayed as an inevitability. It doesn’t matter who dies, or if they both die, because neither could possibly solve anything, as Hubert had preached all along.
And, in our case, all we can do is what Saïd does: shut our eyes and hope for the best as we hear the ticking clock increases its amplitude, Hubert’s voiceover repeats, and we prepare ourselves for the impending ‘BANG!’.
To bring home the point is the epanalepsis involved in the gunshot sound being used for another cut, but this time to black. So, we end where we started: with a gunshot sound overlayed onto a shot of Vinz facing police brutality. The film ends where it begins because it’s a never-ending cycle.
It’s possibly also part of the reason why this film is shot in black and white — the reality this portion of society is submitted to shows no signs of hope or escape.
For me, this film is a masterpiece. It not only holds up as a drama, similar in its filmmaking style to that of something like Before Sunrise, but it also uses its heavy sociopolitical points to both make the point its trying to make and enhance the story itself through it.
There are many other minutiae I could delve into, from the character staging (left vs. right), the background plastered quotes referencing the world being “ours”, as well as much, much more. The whole thing is a goldmine of immense detail, but, hopefully, I covered the key factors in enough detail to give the film its dues.
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Thanks for reading, if there are any other shots, scenes, or quotes that you think present its message just as well, if not better, then I encourage you to comment it or caption it.
(I don’t know if it’s worth plugging this, but here’s my Letterboxd.)