In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean, when asked by an adult what he's rebelling against, spits back, "Whaddaya got?"
And with those words, Dean became a voice for his day's youth culture, an aimless teen looking for some tangible image to which he could cling to justify the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.
But that was the '50s, when smoking on school property and driving up to a lovers' lookout to make out was racy stuff indeed. In the '90s, the miseries of troubled youth have finally manifested themselves in concrete ways. You can find drugs on every corner and skinheads in every school, and poverty dominates the projects. "Whaddaya got?" Open your eyes!
La Haine (Hate), which has been called a French Boyz N the 'Hood, opens with a montage of grainy, black-and-white documentary footage: police clubbing gangbangers, street toughs hurling rocks and bottles into crowds, and rampant, dizzying looting. It's like something out of the L.A. riots, but it's just life in the city for three kids among many: Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Sayid (Sayid Taghmaoui), and Hubert (Hubert Kounde). These opening scenes are brutal and exhausting in themselves, but what's incredible about the movie is that, even when the violence is less graphically realized, its in-your-face ballsiness never lets up. When it's over, you walk out of the theater feeling a grating emptiness in the pit of your stomach.
Because of the subject matter, comparisons to movies like Boyz N the 'Hood are to be expected, and are as valid as any, but the cinematic echo that catches your attention early on--and sticks with you--is from Taxi Driver. In one scene, Vinz stares into his bathroom mirror, acting out Travis Bickle's "You talkin' to me?" speech. In Taxi Driver, that scene resonates because Travis is so patently unstable--but Vinz seems fairly typical of a French teen-ager. He treats the line as a rallying cry, a manifesto for getting through his day.
Mathieu Kassovitz, the film's 28-year-old writer-director, obviously owes a lot to current American cinema. As in Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, Kassovitz employs Hollywood techniques--like fish-eye lenses and fast-moving tracking shots--you don't often find in European films. But to define La Haine only by comparison--to suggest that it is somehow derivative of American-born urban-alienation movies--is to perform an unforgivable disservice. Kassovitz uses American pop culture, including his own directorial style, as the backdrop against which the violence plays out. His hooligans are nouveau slackers, obsessed as they are with the Lethal Weapon movies, Sylvester and Tweety, New York-style haircuts, and T-shirts bearing mottos like "Elvis Shot JFK." He has taken the economic axiom, "When Wall Street sneezes, Europe gets pneumonia," and transported it to the streets of Paris.
Neither parody nor tribute, La Haine reveals the insidious way violence creeps across national boundaries, and its voice is an angry one. Clearly, Kassovitz envisions American society as a corrupting influence in France, and read that way, La Haine is as fiercely nationalistic as any film I've ever seen.
Yet miraculously, the film avoids the pitfalls of preachiness. Its real power comes from the unlikely emotional involvement Kassovitz establishes between the audience and the movie's three characters, who all come from different backgrounds. Vinz, a volatile Jewish kid; Sayid, a meandering Arab; and Hubert, an introspective black, prowl the streets of Paris, giving new meaning to the phrase, "city that never sleeps." During the course of 24 hours, each gets arrested a few times, engages in a variety of confrontations with skinheads and cops, and while they are all detestable--barely human, really--Kassovitz forces you to see them as individuals.
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All the actors are frighteningly real, but Hubert Kounde delivers a performance of remarkable depth. These aren't kids who talk about serious issues among themselves, but you see on Kounde's face every perplexed emotion that floods through his mind, including ambivalence and genuine hatred. The part is eerie in the profundity of its sadness.
With so much violence around them, watching one day in these kids' lives is almost too much to take. But the most memorable scene in La Haine is a quiet one in a public rest room. As Vinz, Sayid, and Hubert plan their next activity, an elderly man emerges from a stall and, in the friendliest tone imaginable, begins to tell them a story. In it, the man and his painfully shy friend are headed to Siberia on a train that stops only long enough to allow them to take a crap. The friend takes too long, and hasn't buttoned his pants by the time the train starts to leave. Every time he's within reaching distance of the train, he reaches out a hand and his trousers drop, so he pauses to pull them up. He does so over and over until he misses the train completely, and ends up dying of frostbite.
The point may be clear to the audience--the friend was so rigid he allowed his shyness to cause his death--but it remains an enigma to Vinz, Sayid, and Hubert. Kassovitz is asking for an acknowledgement of the fact that if we don't reconsider the direction in which our culture is headed, we will sacrifice ourselves to preserve some vague notion of propriety. "It's not how you fall," the opening credits remind us, "it's how you land."
La Haine (Hate) screens April 21 at 9:15 p.m.