There is a formal struggle in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) between unflinching realism and filmic self-consciousness. Much has been made of the picture’s sociological importance but an awareness of its cultural implications should not cloud an appreciation of its sophisticated construction.

The film presents a day in the life of three youths in an unidentified Parisian slum. It begins with black-and-white documentary footage of real riots and starts, as a result, with a feel of historical authenticity. The cinematographic choice to shoot in a similar black-and-white look seems to bind the film proper to the stock footage with which it opens: on the one hand, the fiction of La Haine is allowed the authority of history. The story begins the day after a riot in which a police inspector’s gun has gone missing: on the other hand, then, history fills in narrative blanks, as the tumult recorded in the stock footage acts as a surrogate for the fictional riot that we are not allowed to see.

The narrative is full of similar holes, as well as tedious stories, dead-ends and unfunny jokes: it appears as uneven as life. Take, for example, when, sat killing time in a park, a young boy tells Vinz (Vincent Cassel) a story about a celebrity who’s been set up for the television show Candid Camera. The tale crescendos as the celebrity tries “to act cool” but, as he gets more uneasy, inevitably “starts ranting at [a] guy”. Finally, the story climaxes only in a bathetic petering out: “They start fighting and the Candid Camera guys have to break it up.” “Then what?” “That’s all.” “Who was the celebrity?” “Dunno, but he was real famous. I don’t remember.” Later, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) ruins a potentially funny joke by over-telling it. He begins, “Heard the one about the nun?” He recounts how a drunken man, leaving a bar, comes across a nun in a long black cape. He starts beating her up and, after about five minutes, finally says “You’re not so tough, Batman!” The comedy is defused when Saïd exclaims, after a brief pause, “He thought the nun was Batman!” Vinz rounds off the deadening by saying, “I heard it was a rabbi.”

The film ends with what feels like a true to life stroke, when it is Vinz and not a policeman that is shot. Throughout the film we are allowed to see Vinz enacting (in his head) the desire to shoot a “pig”. His fantasy is to avenge the death of his friend Abdel Ichaha who dies at the hands of police brutality. He shouts at Hubert (Hubert Koundé) that he’s learnt from the streets: “Turn the other cheek: you’re a dead motherfucker!” When, though, he is handed a skinhead to kill (one apparently worthy of death, as Hubert antagonises him, screaming, “There are good cops. But the only good skinhead is a dead skinhead!”), he finds he cannot. He knows he’s not a gangster. Neither does he die a glamorous death: he is shot only because a gun goes off by accident. It is a realistically unflattering end to a head that was filled with fantasies.

But his blood runs on the pavement black not red. While the black-and-white cinematography may appear to lend a sense of authenticity to the picture, it instead creates a distance between the film and real-life and places it in the realm of self-conscious cinema. There are references to colour throughout the picture that jolt the viewer and make her aware of its absence. Vinz, talking about the riots of the previous night, says, “It was war against the pigs, in living colour!” If colour is a sign of life, then the decision to shoot La Haine in black-and-white separates it from reality. In a shop, buying peppers for his grandma, Vinz does not have enough money for the green ones, only the red, which she hates. As the viewer sees Vinz and the shopkeeper argue over the peppers, all uniformly grey, she begins to feel that, if everything were in colour, if there was some hope, everything would be fine. The world of La Haine becomes painfully black and white; the absence of colour is felt.

There are also references to filmic conventions and tropes that feel specifically placed in the mouths of the characters to emphasise their roles as created puppets. Saïd asks one man, “What’s with the hair net? […] You a movie star?” High and stuck in Paris over night, he claims, “I’ll switch off the Eiffel Tower”, before being told by the rest of the trio, “That only works in movies.” As Vinz tries to express his anger at the police, he mimics Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), turning the originally cool psychopathy into a grotesquely distorted face:

These references feel metatextual only at the level of the scriptwriter (also Kassovitz): they serve to remind the viewer that La Haine is a film, not a documentary, and the characters are not allowed to know. As the trio turn away from the Eiffel Tower and leave frame left, the shot lingers for a second, empty. Suddenly, the Tower begins to turn off but Vinz, Saïd and Hubert are not there to see it.

Kassovitz creates a dream-like world in which normal social and physical rules do not apply, in which the Eiffel Tower will turn off at a command. Hubert’s boxing gym has been trashed and left in pieces early in the film; there’s even a car that’s been deserted inside. Throughout the picture, Saïd wonders, “How’d the car get in here? The doorway’s not big enough.” His questions go unnoticed by the others but they niggle the viewer because they remain unanswered. How can a car get in through doors that are too small? Vinz’s repeated references and visions of a cow border on the surreal. As the viewer sees his fantasies enacted on screen throughout the film, the image of a cow walking down a street lends no certainty to his claims to truth. The question of the nature of the cow – real animal or phantom – remains unanswered.

The cinematography also strengthens the dream-like (or nightmarish) aesthetic of the surreal. When Hubert is first presented to the viewer he is shirtless in his gym, punching a lone black boxing bag that hangs from the ceiling, surrounded by the debris of the recent destruction:

The tone of the scene is uncompromisingly dark. The regular thud of his blows ominously preempts his presence: we hear before we see. The viewer follows the enigmatic sound and, when she finds Hubert, he is shot in slow motion. Such a presentation lends a rhythmical quality to his training: the brutality of boxing is moved closer to the elegance of dancing. The local temporality is uncertain: the viewer is left wondering how long Hubert has been training and how long he will go on. The viewer is similarly sent following sounds later in the film, when a DJ plays music at the top floor of a block of flats. The camera starts beside the decks inside the room but, as the music begins, it slowly floats out the window, hovering far above the street and extending into the sky. We’re allowed to fly, for a time.

Such transcendence, physically represented in this ethereal flying, is hinted at near the start of the film. After the documentary footage, the viewer is presented with a shot of the globe. The enormous circle fills the frame and is accompanied by a voice unattached to a body, uttering “so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter: it’s how you land.” A molotov cocktail falls in slow motion towards the world and fire erupts on impact. It feels like a sort of visual epigraph, hinting at an allegorical significance: the entire world, ending in flames, is what opens this picture. The movement from a larger orb to a smaller one, from the globe to Saïd’s head, like the opening scene of American Beauty (1999), smash cutting from an aerial view of the town to Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) in bed, invites the viewer to attribute to this particular narrative a universal significance: it suggests similar stories go on throughout the world.

But La Haine is inextricably rooted in the unique environment of the banlieues and a reading of the film as a universal allegory is consistently frustrated (though never totally shut off). The opening sequence, for example, is tethered to the specific slum of the film: the shot of the world turns out to be only a frayed poster stuck to a wall. These posters, appearing all over the city and apparently advertising optimistic outward reaching (they say “the world is yours”), in fact reinforce the walls that surround the characters. When Saïd spray paints one of these images, changing the tag line to “the world is ours”, it feels less like an affirmation of the poster’s sentiment and instead a grim realisation that his world, the banlieue, is inescapable. The voice that accompanies the image of the globe feels like the omniscient presence of a narrator. Similarly, though, it is soon tied to the specifics of this story: the aphoristic anecdote (“How you fall doesn’t matter: it’s how you land”) is put into the mouth of Hubert, the only character of the trio that openly expresses a desire to escape (“I have to get out; I have to leave this place ”). His mother knows what these wishes achieve and only says: “if you see a grocery, buy me a lettuce.”

La Haine breeds tension. There is a struggle between apparent realism and filmic self-consciousness; the narrative hints at a universal application, while frustrating a reading that moves away from the specifics of the banlieue and, most sadly, the characters’ pretensions (Vinz’s murderous fantasies or Hubert’s escape, for example) are stripped away as the picture progresses. These tensions are unresolved and it is fitting that there is no real sense of conclusion: as the viewer is only allowed to hear the shot, when Hubert and the policeman are at gunpoint, she does not know who is killed. She knows though that someone has been shot and this knowledge not only diminishes the emotional power of Vinz’s death, as one follows another so quickly, but also invokes a feeling of social stagnation: the narrative does not conclude because the situation continues (effectively) unchanged. Equally, Hubert’s first words are echoed at the end: “How you fall doesn’t matter: it’s how you land.” The cyclic pattern this repetition suggests is paralleled in the microcosm of a single line, again from Hubert. When arguing with Vinz, he warns him simply that “hate breeds hate.”