La Haine, the controversial 1995 drama that held up a mirror to the social ills of modern France, arrived during a dark time in the country’s history. Twenty-four years on, with a sequel mooted and France again experiencing uncertain times, we reflect on the film’s lasting significance.
First, that summer France had been shocked by a wave of mysterious shootings and bombings, which may or may not have been linked to the civil war then raging in Algeria. The worst of these was on 25 July, when a bomb exploded at the Saint-Michel métro station in the heart of the Latin Quarter of Paris. The bomb went off at the height of the rush hour on the RER line, killing eight people and injuring 80. This bombing at Saint-Michel was followed three weeks later by a bomb at the Arc de Triomphe, injuring 17 people. There were then bomb threats throughout that long and tense autumn.
The constant threat of violence was matched by a wave of massively disruptive strikes provoked by prime minister Alain Juppé’s austerity measures. The country was effectively paralyzed all the way up until the end of 1995 – nothing seemed to work, from trains to buses to all kinds of public services. It was not all fear and misery however. This was also the year a new film had crash-landed into the French imagination, becoming ultimately a worldwide hit. The film was called La Haine (Hate) and was the story of three young men in one of the wretched housing projects outside Paris, commonly referred to as la banlieue. The three lads were a north African, a black guy and an eastern European Jew – an echo of the multiracial mix that would bring France victory in the 1998 World Cup. They were cheeky, funny and likable – a gang of what the French call “branleurs”, which is literally translated as “wankers” but really means young guys who mess about. The core of the story was, however, that they were also full of rage – against the police, but ultimately against a society that has pushed them to the margins. Much of the film’s comedy, as well as its social comment, comes from the gang’s misadventures in central Paris, a world as distant and alien to them as America.
It was the first time the banlieue had ever been represented to a mainstream French audience. The film was an immediate and massive hit and galvanized the part of France that knew the banlieues existed but had never seen them up close or dealt with in a sympathetic way. The director of La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz, was then only 26 years old, but he had somehow managed to rewrite everything that people thought they knew about French cinema.
Kassovitz was fearless too. When the film premiered at the Cannes film festival – where it was a huge critical success – the police on duty turned their backs on Kassovitz and his crew, perceiving the film as an anti-police polemic. Kassovitz swaggered his way through the storm. Inevitably, Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the Front National, stormed into the fray, calling for “these yobs to be sent to jail”. Kassovitz shrugged off the criticism. The fact that Alain Juppé organized a special screening for his cabinet more than proved the point: that in 1995 La Haine seemed to describe exactly what was wrong with France. In one of its blackest years, it seemed both to capture the mood of the country and turn it into great art.