Project surrealism: the urban spaces of La Haine

As a season of 1990s cinema kicks off at BFI Southbank, we look back at the suburban landscapes of Mathieu Kassovitz’s vital portrait of the Paris suburbs.

Adam Scovell

La Haine (1995)

Mathieu Kassovitz’s award-winning drama, La Haine (1995), follows a day in the life of three young men from immigrant families in a poverty-stricken Paris suburb. Fizzing with rage, the film gave voice to the disavowed communities in the housing projects outside of the capital but, essentially, didn’t romanticise the tough reality of these charged environments. Using stylistic innovation, black and white photography, and the director’s real life experiences witnessing protests against police brutality, Kassovitz created a moody social surrealism that resulted in one of the great urban portraits of the 1990s. 

Riots have occurred in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, north of Paris, following the hospitalisation of Abdel while in police custody. His friends are debating what to do. Vinz (Vincent Cassel), having come into possession of a stolen police revolver, vows revenge if Abdel dies. Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is the joker, forced to play mediator between Vinz and the third of the trio, Hubert (Hubert Koundé), a boxer and drug dealer who tries to maintain a distance from the police in the hope of eventually escaping the suburbs. After an officer is nearly shot, the trio flee the intervening police, taking a train to central Paris where they encounter an array of characters and problems. But what sort of welcome will await them on their return to the suburbs?

La Haine (1995)

La Haine (1995)

Though the drama and background of La Haine is socially complex, the film’s essential themes can be addressed by discussing its milieu: the common denominator of social unrest. Set and filmed in one of the so called ‘projects’, the drama centres on a society happy to let those on the outside of its normal social spaces disintegrate at the edges. Such projects (‘les banlieues’), were a postwar intervention in the housing crisis, creating large, affordable complexes outside of France’s main cities. With a lack of investment in the decades after the war, many became poverty stricken, with only a small handful preserving affluence (‘les banlieues chic’). Even the very term ‘banlieue’ came to denote poverty, while a sizable amount of France’s socio-political discourse over the last 40 years has been rendered in terms of said projects and the people who live in them.

La Haine was by no means the first film to find cinematic potential in such spaces. Jean-Luc Godard found equal purchase in his summation of 1960s consumer society for Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1967), despite focussing on the affluent end of the spectrum, not a project like Chanteloup-les-Vignes. Unlike Godard, Kassovitz uses the architecture to create a dark maze, in which petty criminality and police brutality sit side by side. If Godard’s view of such architecture was vertical – with characters wealthy, bored and looking down – Kassovitz’s was horizontal, with communities stretched outwards, their amenities and opportunities thinned. His portrayal of the place is essentially humane, no matter the volatile faults of the various characters we meet.

La Haine (1995)

La Haine (1995)

The buildings in Kassovitz’s Paris curve and wind, swallowing the sky to create concrete labyrinths. The space feels positively dystopian: derelict petrol stations strewn with graffiti, empty car parks haunted by the absence of people and even Hubert’s local gym now a burnt husk. The film’s noted and shocking final scene possesses an irony thanks to the design of the buildings. Saïd and Vinz are walking back through the project, having left Hubert with the gun, when they are finally confronted by the police in what is to be a fatal meeting. On the walls are giant murals, the eyes of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud looking down as the final tragedy of the film unfolds. It’s a statement on the overall failure of the project at that point in time – as if relying on the exceptionalism of French history and culture were enough to bring together a fractured society rendered volatile by a mixture of poverty, crime, social deprivation and police brutality.

It’s more difficult to gauge La Haine in terms of its inky portrayal of the city. Kassovitz uses his stylistic bombardment to paint a dark yet visually alluring portrait of the capital. Paris benefits from this surreal visual rendering and tough dramatic reality: shadowy, technology ridden, dirty and dangerous, like a darker cousin of the Paris in Godard’s Alphaville (1965). The film’s Paris is geographically nonsensical, as if the city is folding in on itself to prevent the trio from returning home. La Haine bears similarities to the great stylists of the 19th-century novel, and often feels like a classical, gothic drama, unfolding with the same vivid imagination seen in Paris-set novels by the likes of Honoré de Balzac or Emile Zola, as much an examination of working-class male rage as the latter’s La Bête humaine. 

La Haine (1995)

La Haine (1995)

Things have improved in the area since the making of La Haine. Crime has fallen, and it largely avoided the banlieue riots of 2005, which the film is said to foreshadow. In a 2015 anniversary visit by France 24, the previous mayor of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, Pierre Cardo, expressed regret for letting the film shoot in the suburb after many others had refused, suggesting that the drama stigmatised the area. Yet the stigma also encouraged local people, some of whom starred as extras in the film, to change and improve its fortunes. The film became an unlikely instigator for progress, even if that change is still only slowly occurring, staggered further by cuts and overshadowed by more media-grabbing protests like the gilets jaunes.

La Haine is far away from the determined realism of other films putting similar lives and classes on screen. Yet, in spite of its darkness, the film feels unusually optimistic, not in terms of its story but in the very act of portraying this world in the first place. La Haine was, and remains today, a radical and vital creative endeavour.

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