La Haine is a black-and-white film from 1995 that garnered a great deal of attention and acclaim for its gritty depiction of life in the slums of France. In English, the title means “hate.” The film, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, is an examination of violence. The Criterion Collection, having previously issued it on DVD, has now made it available as a technically superb Blu-ray edition. The critical consensus seems to clearly justify such treatment, and apparently the film is extremely highly regarded in France. It’s not an easy film to love, but definitely has interesting elements and deeply committed performances by its primary cast.
Three young men, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé), and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), spend a single day contemplating avenging their fallen friend, Abdel. Hospitalized after a brutal beating at the hands of law enforcement, Abdel had gotten caught up in riots that consumed Paris. During these riots, a police officer lost his firearm. Vinz found it and wants to use it on someone. The three friends are without any discernible purpose or ambition. They wander around the lower class suburbs of Paris, biding their time as they discuss retaliation to get even for what happened to their gravely injured friend.
Kassovitz, who also scripted the film, gives his trio of primary characters a handful of traits to distinguish them from one another. There’s a certain amount of cliché in each case, particularly the prototypical hothead Vinz. Though very well portrayed by Cassel, the wannabe tough guy part has been done to death. Hubert is the sympathetic one, a boxer and stoner who just wants to the leave the cycle of violence behind him. Less defined is Saïd, who kind of represents a more moderate, level-headed sensibility. Not much happens as they traipse around the neighborhoods, basically wasting the single day depicted throughout the film (one of Kassovitz’s cornier gimmicks is flashing the time of day against a black background throughout the film). They get into fights, they threaten various hoods, and they try to avoid entanglements with law enforcement.
By the time the rather forced tragic dénouement rolls around, there has been no valid connection established between the viewer and characters. They are unsympathetic chumps, difficult to develop any true emotional attachment to. At least that was my experience, but again the film has a considerable fan base among critics and cineastes in general. Stylistically the film is quite vivid and visceral, with striking camera work and stark, but beautiful, black-and-white cinematography. At just over 90 minutes, La Haine moves quickly, but ultimately left me feeling oddly uninvolved, indifferent to the plight of these characters.
The Criterion Collection has given La Haine a stunningly effective Blu-ray treatment. The 1080p transfer brings out the very best in Pierre Aïm’s cinematography. The black-and-white imagery looks very sharp and detailed, with rich subtleties in the various shades of gray. Close-ups of actor’s faces practically allow the viewer to count pores. Wide shots aren’t quite as sharp, and natural film grain is more noticeable but never distracting. Director Mathieu Kassovitz supervised the transfer and he has every right to be proud of the way his movie looks in high definition.
The audio of La Haine is equally impressive, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that does much more than showcase the film’s dialogue. It does that just fine, with the French dialogue sounding natural and free distortion. But all channels are used effectively, with ambient effects creating a realistic audio environment that suits the realism of the film. Not that anyone would describe this as an action film, but there are some rowdier scenes that involve the surround channels to a significant degree. During these action-oriented segments, the mix is satisfyingly immersive.
A fair amount of supplemental features are included on La Haine. Kassovitz provides a director’s commentary track that sheds a great deal of light on all aspects of the film. A substantial, feature-length documentary “Ten Years of La Haine” contains further insights from Kassovitz, as well as the film’s producers and some of the principal actors. “Social Dynamite” is a half-hour piece that takes a sociological view of the film, putting it in the context of real-life contemporary France. Jodie Foster, a huge supporter of the film, is featured in an enthusiastic 15 minute introduction. A couple of short featurettes and a selection of brief deleted scenes round out the extras. As usual with Criterion, a meaty booklet accompanies the release, packed with photos and informative essays.