03 July 2006

La Haine (1995)

Originally inspired by the real-life shooting of a Zairean teenager in police custody in 1993, this film portrays a single day in the life of three young friends from a low-income housing estate on the outskirts of Paris. It's far from an average day for Jewish Vinz, Arab Saïd and black African Hubert, a friend has been beaten to coma in custody while their estate has been rioting.
The trio try to maintain their ducking and diving lifestyle while dodging various dangers the most aggressive being the local police. The tension mounts as the day continues, not helped by a brutal police interrogation for Vinz and Saïd, during which a gendarme explains to a colleague the most effective way to administer a beating, nor by Vinz revealing he's found a police revolver lost during the previous night's riot.
Despite their testing existence the film almost draws towards a happy ending which is then twisted back into cruel reality in the last sad minute.
"La Haine" is an incredible piece of work which has a filmic total far greater than the sum of it's parts. Firstly it's a cracking portrayal of the contemporary France which minorities and the poor find themselves subject to. It's stylishly shot in grainy black and white, with a mix of highly mobile and static cinematography and is perfectly paced. The intense action scenes are short and shaky and those of urban boredom slow and long.
Partly funded by a community arts grant it's unlike any similarily funded film from any other European state. Similarily it was a big success, selling half a million tickets in it's first six weeks of release and even bringing the French Cabinet to arrange a hurried viewing because it created such an incredible domestic political furore.
It also set the three actors and the director on to healthy careers, Vinz was played by a relatively unknown Vincent Cassel who has since become the most famous; Saïd Taghmaoui and Hubert Koundé have also enjoyed many roles since; and the director and writer Mathieu Kassovitz (who also played one of the Front National skinheads) has gone on to most recently direct "Gothika" and star in "Munich".
Finally it had a brief but positive effect on what had become a slightly stale French film industry. It rejected the two most powerful trends; "heritage" films -`le cinéma du patrimoine' such as "Cyrano de Bergerac" which specialise in a tasteful Disneyfication to delight the older more middle-classed viewer; and `le cinéma du look' like "Nikita" based on advertisements and MTV videos aimed at younger escapist viewers. "La Haine" uniquely dared to bring modern and very real problems and tensions to the big screen.
"La Haine" is available on DVD in a number of editions and is rated 15.

"M" (1931)

It's unusual for a seventy-five year old film to maintain any vitality but Fritz Lang's "M" manages just that. Co-written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou this tale of a serial child murderer stalking city streets undetected offers a highly watchable film without basking in the sordid theme. Rather it holds relevance to modern viewers, but more thoughtfully than anything you're likely to see, read or hear now.
The lead was Peter Lorre's first role, masterfully played with the natural creepiness which he became so famous for. Every moment he's on screen is a delight with his expressive acting owing more to silent pictures but gently blessed with the addition of sound.
The other acting is high quality, the photography superb; murders are only hinted at with simple visual metaphors, such as lunch set at table but lacking child, while the style is pure noir.
When released it was highly influencial, partly because it was one of Germany's first films with sound but also because German film enjoyed a great reputation between the wars similar to that enjoyed by modern French cinema today.
Hitler's rise to power and the decimation of the creative industries led to both Lang and Lorre moving abroad, a wise move considering images from "M" appeared in the Nazi propaganda film "Der Ewige Jude" (The Eternal Jew) as an example of the contortion of "the normal sense of Justice".
I've avoided giving away the twists and turns of plot because my meagre words can't match the celluloid tale, and it's far too good to spoil. "M" has been restored by Eureka, is available on DVD and is rated PG.