Mobility in the Banlieue

The three primary characters of La Haine are persistently focused on the concept of mobility. Saïd, Vinz, and Hubert devote a majority of their time on film to a series of fruitless efforts at finding means of transportation. Their activities over the course of the narrative include wandering aimlessly, hitching rides from sketchy acquaintances, listening attentively to the sound of a moped, running to catch trains, and attempting to steal a car. Despite these endeavors, the characters never reach an acceptable destination. They manage to move around quite a bit, but they never really get anywhere (except occasionally the police station). They perceive a discrepancy between the supposed mobility of the typical Parisian lifestyle and the reality of their lives in the estates. Most of the actual conflicts that take place in the film derive from their frustration at this reality, and the problem is subsequently attributed to a number of sources: racism, lack of money, police brutality, etc. None of these factors is to be ignored, but it is also worth considering how much of their alleged immobility is a direct result of their own actions. One telling scene depicts the characters expressing pleasure at the sight of a friend’s torched car. It becomes difficult to judge the origin of their specific circumstances, and ultimately, in failing to adequately assess their dilemma, they remain trapped.

One of the main reasons for their being trapped might be the fact that they accomplish very little over the course of the film. Saïd, Vinz, and Hubert each speak endlessly about things they are going to do in the near future. Saïd is going to make some money and maybe find a girl. Vinz is going to shoot a pig. Hubert is going to get away from the banlieue. Instead of realizing any of these goals, the characters spend the film in a state of passivity. Most scenes consist of them sitting idly in parking lots and parks discussing inconsequential topics. The repetitiveness of their daily activities is exemplified by the inane nature of their dialogue. Saïd often repeats aimless and unheralded questions like “How did he get on film?” after spotting a friend in television footage of the riots, and “Why did he tell us that?” when told the story of the ill-fated Grunwalski. The film’s violent conclusion further asserts the persistence of their passivity. The characters do not instigate the climactic confrontation, but rather, are assaulted and compelled towards a rash response. The relevance of the Grunwalski anecdote becomes clear at this point. The characters are doomed because of their habitual inaction and poorly conceived reactions; they have allowed their respective fates to escape from them.

The content of La Haine helps to develop the continuing discussion concerning the traits that constitute a contemporary flâneur. Much like the novels The Sun Also Rises, Good Morning, Midnight, and Giovanni’s Room, this film relies on the concept of the gaze. This gaze is established during the expository shot of Saïd staring down a patrol of police officers. Furthermore, the film concludes with Saïd closing his eyes in terror. Similar to the protagonists of those aforementioned narratives, the characters in La Haine are mobile spectators who perceive limitations to the extent of their mobility. They observe changes to their environment, but distance themselves from the action. The characters are also subjects to the spectacle described in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The often-discussed banlieue riots are depicted exclusively through the use of news footage. This medium creates a significant distance between the spectator and these all-important events, and subsequently renders the riots a mere spectacle. It remains to be said whether their status as passive onlookers is enough to confirm their flâneurship. Perhaps these characters represent a modern cultural phenomenon attempting to emulate the archaic flâneur archetype. They do not possess the financial freedom required for total mobility, but their low status on the societal hierarchy and lack of responsibilities afford them some compensatory liberty.

The stylistic choices of director Mathieu Kassovitz serve to distinguish the complex nature of his protagonist’s mobility. On several occasions, the camera is allowed to move freely around a large, yet enclosed space, such as a parking lot, a rooftop, a playground, or a gym. This represents the ability of the characters to cover a significant area within the Parisian space, but also reflects their inability to free themselves from their social status. When Hubert proclaims, “This isn’t Thoiry!” he compares his group of friends to a pack of animals that roam freely but do not perceive the actuality of their captivity. The recurring image of a man falling from a fifty-storey building perfectly illuminates their situation. Saïd, Vinz, and Hubert are moving quickly and continuously, but they have no control over the direction.

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