Back when I was just getting into film (the late 90s, ouch), Mathieu Kassovitz's Hate [La Haine] was one of those edgy cult films that spoke to the younger generations, in part because it is one of those rare films that does a decent job portraying young people (not the old souls, but the new souls). It was a big film in the hip-hop scene, but it found a broader audience and blossomed into a true cult classic. I wasn't quite sure what to expect of it two decades later, as films like these can lose their relevance and come off as outdated, while at other times they gain potency as they age. Turns out the latter applies to Hate.
I've complained about this before, but it can be difficult to find films that do justice to youth culture, especially when looking at the smaller cultural niches that exist. It's largely because too few young directors get a shot at directing films, and when older directors have a go they rarely have their finger on the pulse. It's a bummer because cinema is a fitting medium to document those very niches. Kassovitz was only 28 when he directed Hate, which goes a long way in explaining how the setting and characters felt more relevant and lived in than you'd expect from a film about the kids in the Parisian banlieues.
Even though the film is almost 30 years old, it's still relevant as the banlieues continue to make the news from time to time, especially when there are protests or uproar in France. You get these images of violent youth destroying whatever crosses their path, to have a film show the other side of the coin is a worthwhile endeavor, especially when it doesn't bend over backward to hide the lesser parts of the main characters. They may not always be very likable or even agreeable, and they certainly aren't excused for all their actions, but the film does manage to create empathy for them, which is quite the feat.
When Abdel is put into a coma because of a scuffle with the police, the violence escalates and the cops become the target of the people living in the Parisian banlieues. Three friends get together to hang out, but things get tricky when one of them finds a gun lost by a policeman. With the weapon, his macho side surfaces, yet the gun also paints a target on his back. As they move through the city they get into increasingly more trouble, not just with the police but also with a local skinhead gang. The gun could solve some of their problems, but it would also turn them into killers.
While I'm not an indiscriminate fan of black-and-white cinematography, it can help elevate a film when there are budgetary limitations, and Kassowitz uses it to great effect. There are some striking images here, using meticulous framing and stark contrasts to build several beautiful moments. These scenes really set the tone for the rest of the film. The editing could've been a little tighter maybe, especially in combination with the soundtrack, but that's just nitpicking. The film looks classy, and for a 30-year-old feature, that's not something to take lightly.
The score is what you'd expect from a film like this. It's hip-hop inspired, with some solid French rap songs, but also some more classic numbers getting the hip-hop treatment. It still feels young, as the music is clearly aimed at younger people rather than a more typical movie buff audience, which I consider a big plus. It helps to set the stage and it's another hint that Kassovitz is more than just another outsider looking in. I think he could've been a bit bolder still, and it's also not the type of music I'd put on myself, but within the context of the film, it works wonders.
Vincent Cassel is the big star here (not counting the short Philippe Nahon cameo), but his two companions are just as impressive. Hubert Koundé in particular puts a lot of depth and emotion in his character. Saïd Taghmaoui has the toughest character of the three, but he too inserts plenty of empathy in his role. The rest of the cast is decent, but not quite as notable, as the main trio takes up all the space, the others are just there as decoration. Kudos to the casting director though, they did an impeccable job, and the film wouldn't have been the same without these three guys.
Structurally, the film holds few surprises, apart from maybe the ending. It starts off relatively innocent, but it quickly dawns that once the gun comes into play, the situation is bound to spiral out of control. This creates a strong tension that Kassovitz aptly exploits to work towards an impressive finale. The finale itself plays out a little differently than I expected it to (twenty years is a long time, forgive me), but I believe it even increases the potency of the film. The twist is a downright punch in the gut, but an earned one and Kassovitz did a great job sparing it until the very end.
Hate is close to celebrating its 30th birthday, but thanks to the strong performances of the central cast, the stylish black-and-white cinematography, and the fitting soundtrack it is still an impressive film with a gutwrenching finale. It's a bona fide classic of French cinema and if you're looking for a cinematic take on the problems that haunt the Parisian banlieues, I can't think of a better film to watch. It's a shame Kassovitz would take a more commercial route later on in his career, but that doesn't diminish the strengths of this film. An easy recommendation that hasn't lost any of its initial appeal.