La Haine is one of the major films of the 1990s. It is characteristic of the cinéma de banlieue, films set in the outer suburbs of France's main cities, which focus on disaffected and usually jobless young men. It was the seventh most popular French film in 1995, and was shown to government ministers as an example of what would in the UK be called 'inner-city problems'. The film focuses on three friends, a black (Hubert), a white Jew (Vinz), and a beur (Said). There is tension on the housing estate because a young man has been beaten while in police custody. Vinz has managed to get hold of a policeman's gun, and speaks of exacting vengeance. The three friends go to Paris to clinch a drug-deal. Hubert and Said are picked up by the police, beaten, and released too late for them to get the last train back home. They wander around the city with Vinz, meeting, amongst others, a band of skinheads and an old man in a toilet, and they gatecrash the opening of an art exhibition. When they eventually return home, they meet an aggressive policeman who accidentally shoots Vinz dead. The film ends with Hubert holding the gun found by Vinz at the policeman's head, while the policeman holds his own gun to Hubert's head.
We have chosen two sequences for analysis. The first is the meeting with the old man in the public toilets; the second is the sequence where Vinz pretends that he is Robert de Niro in Scorsese's Taxi Driver. In this second sequence, we will be comparing and contrasting the US film with the French film.
The three friends have been arguing in some public toilets about the value of violence when an old man emerges from a cubicle, and launches into a shaggy dog story. Surprisingly, they listen attentively, but at the end, it is made clear to us that they have no more idea why he told them the story than we might have. Here is a transcription of the sequence:
The old man: It really does you good to have a decent shit. Do you believe in God? You shouldn't ask whether people believe in God, but whether God believes in us. I had a friend called Grunwalski. We were pals in Siberia. When you go to a camp in Siberia, they take you in cattle-wagons which cross the icy steppes for days without seeing a soul. You keep warm by huddling together. But the problem is that when you want to relieve yourself, you can't do it in the wagon. The only time you stopped was to put water into the locomotive. But Grunwalski was very prudish. He felt embarrassed at simply washing with other people. I often made fun of him because of that. Anyway, the train stopped and everybody makes the most of it to go and have a shit behind the wagon. I had gone on about it so much to Grunwalski that he preferred to go a bit further away. So the train sets off again, everybody jumps on. The problem is that Grunwalski has gone some way to hide behind a bush. He hadn't finished having a shit. He jumped up from behind his bush, holding his trousers in his hand so as not to trip over. He tried to catch up with the train. I held my hand out. But every time he stretched his out to me, he let go of his trousers, and they fell around his ankles. He picks up his trousers, starts running again, and every time his trousers fall down when he stretches out his hand to me.
Said: So what happened?
The old man: Well, nothing! Grunwalski died of cold. Bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye.
Said: Why did he tell us that?
This sequence seems to have very little to do with the action. It seems rather to be a very conscious digression, a demonstration of wilful ambiguity, characterisdc of the European art cinema, underlined by the heavy Polish accent of the old man. It is clearly intended to be funny:
• the form of the story — an extended joke without a punchline — is a familiar one
• the content of the story is lavatorial humour, corresponding to the location; indeed, the old man underlines the desperate need for a shit with a comical body gesture and an emphasis on the word 'chief (to shit)
• once the three friends have left, with Said repeating his final question, the camera remains fixed on the empty toilets for a few moments until an obviously frightened man peeks out of another cubicle to see if all is clear
The story clearly serves several functions, however. It is not just comical; the comedy is mixed with tragedy. At its most basic and functional level, the story interrupts the increasingly violent confrontation between the tearaway Vinz, who has been insisting that he will kill a cop, and the more reasonable Hubert, who points out that the violence will change nothing. The story also functions as a metaphor for issues of exclusion and solidarity. There are three overlapping issues here.
1 The fact that it interrupts a confrontation between Hubert and Vinz that centres on the moral and political value of violence suggests that the story can be seen as a comment on the need to stay together, otherwise tragedy will occur.
2 The story is about failing masculinity; it ridicules a man, suggesting very strongly the friends' disempowerment, and attempts at empowerment (by threatening to use the gun, for example).
3 The context of the story - deportation through the Siberian steppes -suggests the broader issue of the three friends' marginality both in relation to the urban centre (they live in a troubled estate), and in relation to French society in more general terms. Indeed, the story itself is one to which they do not have access: they do not understand why the old man has told them the story, and their incomprehension suggests their isolation from one of the principal ways in which a society constitutes itself, by remembering its history. For the three friends, marginalised from society, an absurd story about two men in the middle of the Siberian steppes means nothing, it is doubly absurd, because they have no notion of the events of the Second World War.
It might be argued that our attempt to 'make meaning' of what we first defined as a meaningless digression imposes interpretation, when the point of the story might well be that it is pointless. The kind of narrative coherence we are seeking here might, it could be argued, work against the incoherence which would help represent the aimlessness of the three friends. Nevertheless, film spectators, rightly or wrongly, attempt to make sense of the material presented to them, especially when that material is puzzling.
If the previous sequence was 'European', this sequence is a much more obvious homage to US cinema. In it, Vinz acts out the famous sequence from Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) where Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro), who has become increasingly psychopathic, pretends that he is confronting nameless adversaries and draws his gun to frighten them. Here is a transcription of the dialogue from each film; for obvious reasons, in this case we have kept the French but given a translation of it for comparative purposes.
Vinz (French dialogue)
Vinz (English translation)
You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me, arsehole?
You talkin' to me?
You talkin' to me, arsehole?
Shit, you talkin' to me?
You talkin' to me, like that, man?
You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?
You talkin' to me?
Well, who the hell eise are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me?
Well, I'm the only one here.
Who the fuck do you think you're talkin' to? Oh yeah? Oh yeah? OK.
The differences between the two sequences matter much more than the similarities. At their simplest, these differences signal Vinz's fragility compared with Travis Bickle; the first will be killed by the police, the second will be seen as a hero by police and public. This major difference is signalled in the detail of the sequences.
The dialogue may be much the same, but Bickle says something Vinz does not: 'Well, who the hell else are you talkin' to? ... Well, I'm the only one here.' The statement recalls forcefully something that is relevant in both sequences: that the characters are talking to themselves. But the fact that this is drawn to our attention more in the Scorsese suggests by contrast that Vinz is considerably less alone than Bickle, forming part of a tight-knit male group, unlike Bickle's psychopathic loner. Arguably this should make Vinz stronger, but paradoxically he comes across as much weaker than Bickle, as the remaining details suggest.
It is not clear that Bickle is talking into a mirror, whereas this is made very clear at the beginning of the sequence in the French film, as the camera focuses on the back of Vinz's head before adopting the point of view of the mirror, i.e. Vinz's solipsistic micro-world (contrasted with Bickle's psychopathic world). Vinz's world is a micro-world in more sense than one, since there is an enormous difference in the décor: Bickle is in a large spacious apartment, whereas Vinz is compressed into a tiny bathroom. Bickle's apartment is a relatively neutral space; we are supposed to understand that this man does not really care much about his environment. Neither perhaps does Vinz, arguably, but the space in which he is forced to operate is not just small, it is also not his own, as is underlined by the painting in the background, which functions as a marker of lower-class taste and, with its tropical paradise full of palm trees, comments ironically on Vinz's situation, living with his parents in a run-down housing block. More obviously, though, Vinz is not just constrained in ways that Bickle is not, he is also more fragile: Bickle wears military-style fatigues, whereas Vinz in this sequence is undressed; and Bickle has a gun, whereas Vinz, who also has a gun, does not have it in this sequence. Finally, although the dialogue is very similar, the way in which the two actors deliver it is very different. They both have high-pitched voices, but de Niro speaks his lines deliberately, and comes across as 'friendly', emphasised by the smile. Cassel, on the other hand, is pure aggression, his dialogue delivered rapidly, in staccato style. Bickle suggests unpredictable malevolence, Vinz predictable aggression which, as the mirror suggests, will eventually turn against him.
We began by suggesting that the sequence is an unequivocal homage to Scorsese, which at one level it is. We have seen, however, that the differences in the sequences are what colour our perception of Vinz as a very specific example of a particular type of young Frenchman. In fact, the sequence is no more 'American' than 'French', since it also strongly recalls Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard's A bout de souffle (1959) imitating Humphrey Bogart by running his fingers over the rim of his hat, and over his lips. As this interplay of references suggests (where does
'French' begin and 'American' stop?), the sequence underlines a point we have made elsewhere in this volume: that the French national cinema has a complex relationship with the American national cinema, and has had since the very beginning.
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