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What are the main issues raised by Kassovitz' film La Haine? Show how they assist our understanding of the term “culture”. by

Irina I. Csapo

“Think you're in Disneyland?”, the policeman ironically asks the noisy young men that were having a roof party in their obsolete neighbourhood. The answer to that comes as an obvious antithesis to the overall woe feeling that La Haine's aesthetics and context are build upon. The absence of colour and the perky gayness of the aforementioned fantasy world are herein replaced with grey tones, harsh language, violent conducts led by hopeless but nonetheless vibrant characters who struggle in their hostile habitat for identity and meaning. Mathieu Kassovitz's successful feature, La Haine, sets its context in a housing estate outside Paris, 'les banlieue' (suburbs) of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, where a vast majority of the immigrant population lives and who face 'central' alienation with unemployment and violence from the street gangs of youths. It is the journey of three young men, unemployed and dependent on petty crime and drug dealing, racially different but united in their friendship. The boys are followed in what constitutes a typical day from their absent-minded and meaningless lives throughout their neighbourhood and city, facing hostile and intense moments. The movie starts with media coverage of violent clashes between youths and police, resulting in the death of a young man and it ends in a similar way, more stylised yet incredibly violent scene (Vincendeau, 2000). The story is based upon a prior real-life incident where an 18 year old black man was shot dead by a police officer, a moment which eventually has sparked more tension in the alienated youth's helpless community (Stafford, 2000).


Generically, the journey of the young men from the 'hood' to the city centre finds them in conflicts created by various environments they find themselves in and emphasizes their growth and how they learn through new experiences. It also allows the public to consider how isolated and poor 'les banlieues' are in comparison with the city centre and raises questions of how diverse, but conflictual and segregated their worlds are (Stafford, 2000). This of course, traces to the idea of social helplessness in a society dominated by macho verbal and body language, altogether with its stressed out cliches in a violent habitat (Vincendeau, 2000). Naturally, such a complex environment makes place to a great variety of cultural expression which sets the basis of the movie and on which I shall emphasize further. In the case of La Haine, which is greatly adorned with violence, strong language and musical references, culture plays perhaps one of the most important role. It has the power of a character and it constitutes the background which allows major issues to be born and utterly questioned. However, before I allow myself to enter the depth of La Haine's cultural issues, it is necessary to take a look on the larger side of the matter, that is to say culture with its meanings and social impact. The term 'culture' nowadays has the power to produce great hesitation among linguists, due to its complex forms and meanings that have evolved throughout history and which still has a dynamic essence (Bennet et al., 2003). Mainly, there are three categories of usage for the term 'culture'. The first one refers to an independent and abstract noun that describes processes of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development. The second one speaks about an independent noun which suggests a particular way of life which belongs to one, a group, a period or humanity in general. The last category refers to an independent and an abstract noun which emphasizes on the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic creativity. The latter is the most commonly used and in short, culture is music, literature, sculpture, theatre, film, painting so on and so forth (Williams, 1976). In addition, a more complex meaning can be found in Culture and Society and in which, R. Williams (1958) analyses culture as 'the study of relationships between elements in a whole way of life, material, intellectual and spiritual' (p.57). He further insists on the existence of an 'organic' popular spirit largely connected with the values and the lived conditions that may be reflected or not at other levels of culture. Slightly opposed to Williams' definition of culture, is E.P Thompson's reframed view of culture into “a struggle between ways of life� (Turner, 1990, p.68). Naturally, I ask myself which one of them is most powerful in meaning, however, I strongly affirm that these two definitions do not exclude or oppose each other, on the contrary, they have the power to complete one another and reflect nowadays' cultural standpoints. Even so, from all the complex meanings possible for this term, I shall only discuss about those relevant for this paper in the light of the movie as discussed: popular culture, subculture and cultural hybridity.


As seen in the movie, popular culture is ubiquitous: music (rap, hip-hop, Edith Piaf), American film influences (Taxi Driver), pop icons (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Disneyland are mentioned), aggressive media, the drug dealing and the all-present idea of violent youths gangs. In reality, pop culture confronts hundreds of millions of people everyday. Still, in the early 1950's Britain, it was thoroughly criticised and was seen as not so popular, in the sense that the elites of the society were deploring its deficiencies, its lack of 'moral seriousness' or aesthetic value and furthermore with the spread of commercial television such concerns were even more increased (Turner, 1990, p.44). The term 'pop culture' is then consciously used to describe as Klein G. (2003) does “an area of tension between the globalised production of images and the local adaptation of these images”. It is largely confused as a 'youth culture', however it does overlap generations and it interconnects art with commerciality (Muggleton D. and Weinzierl R., 2003, p.41). Moreover, it is stated that popular culture is strongly connected to the social conditions of those who produce it and consume it (Turner, 1990, p.49). Equally important to this paper and to a proper analysis of the culture that lies within the movie, is subculture. Pop culture traces its roots in the underground, the subcultural movements of black youth, white gays, artistic avant-gardes, hipsters, hip-hop, rastafari, which have all evolved during the past 20 years and which some are featured in La Haine. Other subcultures worth to mention are of an earlier period that reside in 1950's British youth's working class and consist of mods, teds, skinheads or the explosive shock punks. Hebdige D., insists that all these subcultures have their own styles and therefore, particular objects, like for example, safety pins for the punks, or guns (in the movie) for the street gangs, carry particular meanings, expressed in a code which confirms their resistance and subordination to their specific culture. “Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance” (Hebdige, 1979, p.18). Of course, this translates as a task that must be carried in order to discern the 'hidden' messages in the surface of the code. This aspect will be later discussed upon in relation with the movie's cultural context. La Haine's French hierarchy, and nevertheless influenced so greatly by American pop culture, has brought an obvious and urgent importance about cultural hybridity and its dominant presence in the movie. In fact, subcultural formations are not related to particular society forms and these can be ethnically mixed, or more simply put “ethnically hybrid”. Race, ethnicity and gender features that have been successfully imported do not dissolve themselves in the new found territories but rather they are “renegotiated, replanted, re-established and re-enforced” (Muggleton, 2003, p. 152). This is certainly the case of La Haine, strongly emphasized in the Parisian immigrant 'banlieue', where several cultural identities are melted in to re-enforce a new culture, particularly that of a street subculture. Next, I shall bring into discussion some of the cultural key symbols that


appear in the movie and that have tremendous value and significance for the cultural analysis. First and foremost, the general social context in which the plot of the movie is placed, the idea of unemployment, public housing and social hopelessness given by alienation and immigrants' general overview in the Parisian society of that particular period, gives the tone of the movie. The b&w film stock used in filming, has an elegant and stylish aesthetics to it, yet it does not spare the viewer from the predominate trauma. It raises questions about the failure of recognising a social crisis and finding solutions to it (Stafford, 2000). Given the resulted poverty and harsh life conditions, it is by such means on which the youths' cultural identity is based, a culture of terror, violence and crime. The three boys in the movie are living a street culture, in which one can only try to survive, let alone to evolve as an individual. “So far, so good... How you fall doesn't matter. It's how you land” (Stafford, 2000, p. 18), possibly allures towards survivalism in the mean streets. “Hate breeds hate” quoting from Hubert (the black boy) is the major key-phrase for the violent background of the movie. The main characters are “helpless and hopeless”(Vincendeau, p. 323). Their aggression is turned randomly against “the pigs”, meaning the police, which represent “faceless figures of state power” (Stafford, p. 68) and institutions. The motif of the found gun suggests power and violence and dominates the young men's behaviour, anxiously waiting for an opportunity to use it. The media, present by the journalists in the movie, relate a distorted view on the violence in the 'banlieues' based on stereotypes and cliches. The boys blindly conduct a selfdestructive rebellion against the system. Through an obvious law of circularity, the police reacts as expected, adding more violence to the conflict. Reconciliation, solutions and hope have no chance in getting through this trauma wall and communication is perhaps forever lost. Another important topic of La Haine is the 'assimilationist impulse' of French culture emphasized by the cultural hybridity I have discussed above. The Black-Blanc-Beur (a term used to name the second-generation North-African generations) is seen as a racist metaphor, ideally to illustrate the racial relationships of friendship and union among the oppressed and alienated immigrants. Although La Haine is not a film about racism, it makes a point about the characters who must survive in a racist society (Stafford, p. 67). Similarly, it also creates a parallel towards France's tricolore – bleu-blanc-rouge – an idea of multiculturalism within a society that has yet to manage solutions for its colonial heritage (Muggleton D. and Weinzierl R., 2003, p. 202). Furthermore, language as the most evident symbol of the street culture represented in the movie, used in the form of slang, does not spare the viewer of its harsh and often offensive peculiarities. It is mostly used by the youths in a provocative way to confuse and irritate the 'faces of authorities'. For example 'verlane' is a Parisian form of slang and even the 'beur' term is a version of 'Arabe'. Similarly, it is also used in this way to unite members of the street culture against their


oppressors (Stafford, p. 63). Music also plays a vital key in the overall mood of the film. Pop icons like Bob Marley with his “Burnin' and Lootin”, with which the movie starts gives the tone of rebellion and of resistance against oppressors, due to its evident slavery history. Hip-hop and rap music, remixed in the beautifully shot scene by a DJ in his flat is combined with Edith Piaf's most known hit “Je ne regrette rien”, an anthem to French working class cultures. All in all, it is easily to condemn a society based on its cultural stereotypes and features. La Haine remains an important lesson about friendship, survivalism and unity between races towards a better future. Still, its major lesson is that of hate and how not to fuel it. The ending is tragic but open. It is our task, as representatives of a better culture to imagine ourselves an alternate ending in which hate becomes less hate.


Bibliography: 1. Roy Stafford (2000). La Haine. York Press. 2. Hayward S. and Vincendeau G., (2000). French Film: Texts and Contexts. London/New York: Routledge. 3. Williams R., (1976). Keywords. Fontana. 4. Turner G., (1990). British Cultural Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge. 5. Hebdige D., (1979). Subculture: the meaning of style. London/NewYork: Routledge. 6. Williams R., (1958). Culture and Society. London: The Hogarth Press. 7. Muggleton D. and Weinzierl R., (2003). The Post-subcultures Reader. New York: Berg. 8. Bennet T., Grossberg L. and Morris M., (2005). New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing. 9. La Haine, (1995). Directed By Mathieu Kassovitz. [DVD]. France: Lazennec/Le Studio Canal + Le Sept Cinema Kasso/Canal + cofimage 6/Studio Images.

Mathieu Kassovitz - La Haine and the concept of culture  
Mathieu Kassovitz - La Haine and the concept of culture  

An essay about the movie 'La Haine' by Mathieu Kassovitz (1st year essay, it is not a review but an extended academic research about "cultur...

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