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La Haine review – French cinema never looked so good

Matthieu Kassovitz's monochrome masterpiece, a call to arms against police brutality, gets a fresh outing courtesy of a stunning 4K restoration

As Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Burnin’ and Lootin’” grooves over news clips of French protest and sparring with cops, the opening credits of Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Hainewhich landed on an unsuspecting croisette like a bolt of lightning at Cannes ‘95 and now returns to the big screen for its 25th anniversary, locate viewers into rife conflict; a Paris that’s already burning.

Out of these blurred video images, Kassovitz cuts to the face of Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), whose innocent eyes look overwhelmed by the mass of gendarme as he walks around his banlieue. Turns out his friend Abdel was hospitalised by police the night before. As Saïd meets his friends, it’s clear that the flames of the ensuing riot are yet to die out completely – particularly once the rumour about a cop's gun being lost somewhere in the estate turns out to be true.

Kassovitz introduces us to the firecracker Vinz (a star-making turn for Vincent Cassell), and Hubert (Hubert Koundé), who’s trying to make good in the community while mourning the arson of his boxing gym the night before. La Haine spends 24 hours in the trio’s company. They speak over each other so much that they begin to resemble The Three Stooges, while a trip to Paris centre in search of money owed feels more akin to a collection of sketches from Mr Hulot.

In this fish out of water comedy, Kassovitz asks who is localised, and which bodies belong in urban spaces, particularly as this tender trio are hounded by authority at every turn. Every time a cop or reporter delivers another aggressive or racist blow, they couch it in depersonalised language (“It’s my job!”). Kassovitz’s picaresque screenplay never loses focus, particularly when it comes to Vinz’s repeated assertion that if Abdel dies he will kill a cop in an act of karmic retribution, which is, as Hubert points out, pointless in the scheme of actually changing the system.

Nonetheless, La Haine is a film of active rebellion. When police have guns trained on Abdel’s brother, a dozen unarmed onlookers rush them. It isn’t rebellion; it’s instinctive resistance. The police do their job, and the unemployed working class do theirs. Emphatic as Kassovitz’s camera might be, its stylised capturing of spontaneous violence that errupts across the banlieue and beyond doesn’t present any solutions. His images of protest are neatly de-politicised. By marking lines of division across simple lines of cop vs. any ethnic minority, La Haine argues that acts of resistance are as inevitable as the police violence that preclude and follow them – easy enough to grasp 25 years later, even if you’ve never visited the French capital.

Perhaps that is why the film endures. Kassovitz's footprint can be seen all over the 2000s wave of British Hood films: a cycle that began the raw Greek tragedy of Bullet Boy, and reached its peak with Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood, which cribs liberally from La Haine's plot and structure in its relentlessly grim portrayal of the ASBO era. The London rapper Plan B, who starred in the Clarke sequel Adulthood, pushed the genre to further reactionary ends with a starring role in Daily Mail-baiting Harry Brown, and his rap-opera Ill Manors, a film with a sound design which copies but could not better La Haine’s urban audio-geography. The lineage of La Haine in Britain is better observed today in recent Grime videos like Knucks’ “Home,” which has an aesthetic right out of the 1995 banlieue.

Kassovitz accentuates Cassell’s sharp jawline as he struts through Paris with a leather jacket over a shellsuit. They may be the lowest of the low, but his trio look good – and they pop even more in 4K. Still, this new and pristine monochrome transfer, glorious as it is, takes away some of the grit, contributing, perhaps, to the fetishisation of working class aesthetics that the film sends up so well. Yet it’s still hard to resist Jacques Monge’s precise steadicam as it swerves around corners and behind walls and the sound blends with it, fading in and out of hip-hop, mindless chatter, police helicopters. This reaches its apex in a glorious shot that flies out of a DJ’s apartment as he scratches a mix of Edith Piaf and KRS-One, the camera soaring across the rooftops like a scene from I Am Cuba as the music reverberates across the banlieue. Of the dozens of reasons to revisit the still complex, still electric La Haine today, this moment must be high on the list.

La Haine is now showing in select UK cinemas.

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