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La Haine: The Criterion Collection

Jodie Foster mentions it in the introduction, and its undeniable: Few filmmakers had as much influence on Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine ("Hate") as Spike Lee. Though the movie obviously references Martin Scorsese, it seems unimaginable without Do the Right Thing, Spike's breakthrough effort on racial relations. And like Spike Lee, Kassovitz was motivated by the then-current climate of violence against youths (and, more to the point, non-whites) when he made the 1995 film on which his directorial reputation still rests. Kassovitz has had a successful career as an actor (he recently turned up in Steven Spielberg's Munich), but subsequent directorial efforts (like 2003's Gothika) have not had the same charge. Kassovitz started writing the script for La Haine after an incident in 1993, when the French police "accidentally" shot a young man named Makome M'Bowole while he was in police custody and handcuffed to a chair. The film was sparked when the director wondered how someone could wake up and not know they were to die less than a day later. And such informs La Haine, which takes a 20-hour period in the course of three lives that ends in violence. But like any great political film, La Haine shows no signs of age. The situation in the French ghettos has become significantly worse in recent years, with more outbursts of the sort of rioting that's featured in the film. It makes the movie prescient, and it showcases that little has changed in the relationship between the sub-proletariats and the police who view them with little more than contempt.

Opening with a Molotov cocktail covering the earth in flames, the credits of La Haine play over images of riots and the police's response, setting the stage for what's to come. Recently a rioter was put into critical condition by the police, and such cuts into the introduction of the three main characters. Said (Said Taghmaoui) is a graffiti artist and representative of France's North African immigrants. Vincent (Vincent Cassel) is a hood-rat who is introduced doing a goofy dance and imitating Robert De Niro's "You talking to me?" speech from Taxi Driver. Hubert (Hubert Kounde) is an African émigré shown in his now-wrecked gym, where an old poster reveals his career as a boxer. All are denizens of Paris's public housing, known as banlieues, where the residents have homes but most have no jobs. The trio makes their way through the day with nothing to do, eventually hopping a train to Paris in the hopes of getting owed money and seeing a free fight. But after visiting the drugged-up Snoopy (Franáois Levantal), Said and Hubert are taken into custody and tortured for no good reason, while Vincent escapes such a fate — which is lucky for him, since he's been carrying a gun all day with thoughts of avenging his fallen brother. The trio reunites to make their way back home, but with no trains until morning, they are stuck in Paris overnight.

*          *          *

The story of La Haine is told with a ticking clock, which gives a strong sense of pacing to the otherwise staid moments in the lives of the main characters. The three spend most of their day talking about little and trying to figure out what to do, and occasionally acting up against the cops who surround their actions. But the clock points out the impending doom, as does the photography — the film was shot in black-and-white, and the images jump off the screen. Kassovitz talks in a "making-of" spot (included on this DVD) about giving each shot a purpose, an ideology, which may explain why so many shots in the film are striking. It's an elegantly made work, but one with a vitality and energy that infuses the little moments with purpose. Ultimately, as a film that leads up to a haymaker of a conclusion, much of its value comes from the initial shock — a trick few films of its kind can maneuver around for repeat viewings. And yet, as hard as it is to walk away as shaken as we might be after a first viewing, what each successive viewing reveals is the great craftsmanship and the star-making performances by the trio of Cassel, Taghmaoui, and Kounde. The three have a great casual rapport, with Said playing the joker and bouncing between the extremes of Cassel's near-poseur thug and Kounde's quiet desperation after the loss of his gym. It is their rapport makes the film what it is.

The Criterion Collection presents La Haine in a two-disc set with the feature on the first disc in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and in both the original Dolby 2.0 Surround and a newly mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Also included is an English-language commentary track from director Mathew Kassovitz. The disc also offers an introduction by Jodie Foster (15 min.), who championed the picture on its release; two theatrical trailers are also on hand. Disc Two kicks off with the feature-length documentary Ten Years of La Haine (83 min.), which offers interviews with Kassovitz, Vincent Cassel, Hubert Kounde, producers Christophe Rossignon and Alan Rocca, and other members of the crew. The featurette "Social Dynamite" covers the relationship between the banlieues and the outside world, and speaks with sociologists Sophie Body-Gendrot, William Kornblum, and Jeffery Fagan. "Preparing for the Shoot" includes footage of preproduction (6 min.), while "Making of a Scene" offers behind-the-scenes footage of the imaginary cop-killing sequence (7 min.). Also included are two deleted scenes (2 min.) and two extended scenes (5 min.), all with afterwords by Kassovitz (4 min.), and a stills gallery. Dual-DVD keep-case.

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