Saturday, 19 May 2012

LA HAINE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The classic 1995 depiction of life in the banlieues of Paris is now available on a magnificent Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. The movie is as vital now as it ever was and the package includes a cornucopia of fabulous features to enhance your experience. This is a must-see, must-own work of art!

La Haine (1995) dir. Mathieu Kassovitz

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui


Review By Greg Klymkiw

La Haine was theatrically released 17 years ago, but feels like it could have been made yesterday. Mathieu Kassovitz's rage-fuelled portrait of violence and poverty in the housing projects of Paris within the above-ground-catacomb-like banlieues, pulsates with the raw energy of late-60s-early-70s political thrillers by the likes of Costa-Gavras, but is also charged with the same slice-of-life energy the young Martin Scorsese brought to bear in Who's That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets.

On the surface, we have the simple tale of three best friends living in the aforementioned slums who have all been affected in different ways by a massive riot kicked off when the police, in a racially-motivated act of thuggery, beat a young man who now lies in a coma and possibly near death. Kassovitz follows Vinz (Cassel), Saïd (Taghoumi) and Hubert (Koundé), a Jew, an Arab and French-African respectively as they encounter a series of prejudicial harassments by the police as they semi-aimlessly attempt to get through a day just after the banlieues have been besieged by the carnage.

The young man who was murdered was a close pal of Vinz and when he finds a .44 Magnum lost by a cop during the urban mêlée, he hopes to gain neighbourhood "respect" by vowing to kill a cop in retaliation. Hubert is a sleek, powerful, though gentle boxer who's managed to make a place for himself in the world by owning a gym, but overnight he's become a member of the disenfranchised once again as his pride and joy has been gutted by a riot-enflamed fire. Saïd longs to escape life in the slums, but also feels powerless to truly leave them and his immediate aim is to collect a debt from a mid-level drug kingpin.

Kassovitz, though he shot in colour, exposes and filters all his shots for black and white, which the film was eventually released on. Though it's not "true" monochrome, it comes damn close and most astoundingly, though he has chosen to shoot handheld, there's not a single shot that isn't superbly composed. Even more thrilling is that it's seldom handheld in the whirly-cam-herky-jerky miasma so popular in low budget films and most annoyingly, in mega-budgeted contemporary blockbusters, usually from directors with no eye who attempt to be cool and "cinematic" (and sadly, manage to pull the wool over the many eyes of both public and critics).

The blocking and use of actual locations is masterly - all the more astounding as Kassovitz was in his late-20s when he made this film. Within the magnificent compositions, the movements of those in-frame and the camera itself are always rooted in both dramatic beats and emotion - no fakery or fancy-schmancy here. Kassovitz has nothing to prove other than to expose the lives of the people who live in the banlieues in a vivid, vital fashion.

Even more stunning is how the youthful helmer handles a sequence where the trio "journey" to Paris. Reminiscent, though not "borrowed" from The Warriors, Walter Hill's amazing 70s kaleidoscope of never-never-Land gang violence, the point of view feels so true to the experience of the characters - allowing us to feel their own wonder and amazement at being transported into the urban bustle of Gay Paree. The various neighbourhoods in Hill's film felt like distinctively different worlds and not in the same city at all - so too is this captured by Kassovitz in La Haine.

In the banlieues, we are so immersed in an immediacy and reality, it feels like Kassovitz was born and raised there (which he wasn't, though he and his team spent a considerable amount of time living there prior to shooting).

His entire cast, including many non-actors from the banlieues is always first-rate, but the revelation upon the film's initial release and astounding even now is the controlled intensity of the brilliant Vincent Cassel (most notably and recently seen as the equally intense ballet impresario in Aronofsky's Black Swan).

Head-on, Cassel is a triangle-domed seething dragon - his enormous crown holding globes for eyes - watery worlds casting roiling seas of hatred upon us and all who dare look upon him. In profile, he's like a bald eagle crossed with a sort of punk extra-terrestrial je ne sais quoi who would, if he had any, eat his newborn straight from the stirrup-spread loins of mummy - making sure to savour as much of the glistening blood and globs of afterbirth with Mephistophelian relish.

His idol is none other than Travis Bickle, DeNiro's psychotic cabbie in Scorsese's Taxi Driver. His recreations of the "Are you talking to me?" mirror sequence chill to the bone. Many filmmakers have, over the years, referenced Scorsese, but save for Boogie Nights, most of these sequences feel more like homage than story and/or character beats. Here again, it's rooted completely in the world of the film. Someone like Vinz - not only in the 90s, but frankly in any age beyond the 70s would, to varying degrees choose someone like Travis Bickle to idolize.

This, finally brings us to the truly staggering genius and power of La Haine proper and its vitality to both the generation it represents and subsequent generations. The movie on every level is timeless and I suspect its importance to both film art and society at large will continue to live and breathe for years, if not decades to come.

The gap between rich and poor as presented by Kassovitz feels no different than what faces the world today and in fact, has become wider and will frighteningly continue to do so. At any stage I suspect his great picture will always feel modern - his classical style adorned with the flourish of cinéma vérité and its shattering portrait of have-nots within a police state makes it then, now and forever a universal work of art.

Some have suggested (always in positive terms) that the film's ending is ambiguous. If you watch the film with open eyes, you'll see this is absolutely not true. A pair of eyes close in the final frames, but in so doing reflect the sad truth for many of us - that no matter what our dreams might be in this world of shit we live in, what we see is what we get.

La Haine sees what we all see, or what we choose not to see.

The picture is definitely headed for masterpiece status.

"La Haine" is currently available in a brand new and phenomenally sumptuous visual rendering on Blu-Ray from the virtually untouchable Criterion Collection. It's accompanied by a number of interesting features which I urge you to watch AFTER you see the movie (even if you HAVE seen the movie before). It's best to let the picture work its magic upon you before diving into the goodies provided. One of my favourites is actually an introductory message from actor-director Jodie Foster who so loved the film that she bankrolled and masterminded its journey to North American audiences in the 90s. (It did extremely well, grossing about $300,000 which 17 years ago was pretty astounding for a black and white French film of such dark subject matter.)

Foster's perceptions are on the money, but it's also wonderful to experience her clear and genuine love for the movie. It's exciting and kind of infectious. And not to belittle her words or intelligence, but it seems like she harbours a mad crush on Kassovitz. The transfer was supervised and the entire edition is one of Criterion's Director-Approved editions. Other wonderful features include a commentary track, a solid documentary on the film, a featurette on the banlieue, production footage, deleted and extended scenes all accompanied by Kassovitz rendering after-comments, the usual array of photos and trailers, plus a terrific booklet, the highlight of which is an appreciation by Costa-Gavras himself.

What's really odd is that the movie was never released on DVD and only available on VHS. Happily, Criterion remedied this situation a couple of years ago and now, we have an even superior home format to see the movie on. This movie, however, is NOT worth renting, downloading, streaming, netflixing or any other inferior method of delivery. JUST BUY IT!!!