THE CRITICS : Extremely dangerous liaisons


Quentin Curtis
Sunday 19 November 1995 00:02 GMT

MATHIEU KASSOVITZ's La Haine (15) chucks a Molotov cocktail through the sedate window-front of modern French cinema. Kassovitz has scoured away the layers of nuance and the portraits of a privileged past - and daubed over them slogans of despair that are raw and contemporary. The impact is similar to that of the early films of Jean-Luc Godard: a bracing new political and artistic radicalism. As with Godard, and the rest of the new wave, Kassovitz's masters are American (Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese). He wanders through genres with the same casual contempt his heroes show, loafing around the suburbs of Paris. La Haine (Hate, in English) is a polemic that is also a comedy, a buddy movie, a report from the front line, and, finally, a parable.

La Haine takes place in 24 hours after a riot in one of Paris's neglected banlieues (or projects, as the sub-titles translate them). A young Arab lies badly wounded in hospital. Three of his friends, the Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Said (Said Taghamaoui), an Arab, and Hubert (Hubert Kounde), who is black, wander the scarred terrain of the night before, and ponder revenge with a police gun they have picked up. These three racial outsiders are clearly meant to display an outcast solidarity; they exchange racial jibes, but the slurs feel stripped of their prejudice, down to a sort of irony, a bond of outlawry. They find togetherness in being hated.

Kassovitz uses his camera to emphasise this trio's isolation. He shoots one conversation between them from the other side of a car park, which the grainy black and white of the film makes look like a desert. A group of policemen walk in front of the camera, and Kassovitz frames them in a stand-off with the youths, like warring tribes. Space at every point is used to alienate the heroes and unsettle the audience. An everyday act like watching television is given a strange bleakness by being shot from behind the set. Often the trio sit still in their wasteland, ironically posed in front of empowering graffiti ("WE ARE THE FUTURE"); the camera is the only thing in motion, zooming in on their stagnation.

It may be easier for a young film-maker to create a look than to put across ideas (Shallow Grave, for instance, despite its cinematic bravura said very little). Kassovitz, who is only 27, has managed both, placing a debate about the usefulness of violence at the heart of his inky black world. Vince wants to take a policeman's life in revenge, should their friend die - action is the only right response ("I'm no kiss-ass"). Said labels his brand of pumped-up morality and threats "half Moses, half Mickey Mouse". While Hubert, the pragmatist, asks: "If one cop goes, do all cops go?" Kassovitz never takes sides. Maybe his position is that of the old man who emerges from a cubicle in the public lavatories where the debate is going on, to deliver a fable about a man on a train desperate to relieve himself - a cautionary tale, perhaps, about the importance of survival above pride.

Kassovitz has described La Haine as an anti-police movie. It is not just the cops (or "pigs" as they are referred to) who get it in the neck. The film threatens to slide into nihilism, before a finale that pleads for social change. The police certainly get a seeing-to - commensurate with the duffing-up they give Hubert and Said. But, though Kassovitz makes clear the brutality of their overreaction, their deeds don't seem groundless.

The more incendiary elements of the film have already been seized upon. But to view La Haine as agitprop is to ignore its detailed depiction of a rarely filmed section of French society. The banlieue comes to grimy life, with its shady underworld of prize fights and drug-pushing; where peer pressure demands you spend time in jail. Kassovitz takes care not to mythologise his heroes. He shows us their cramped, sparsely decorated homes. Posters peel on the walls, while mothers accept money from sons without questions but with misgivings - with shrugs that say that stolen lucre is better than none at all.

The film roams widely within a formal structure. Time-checks mark out scenes; motifs and speeches are repeated. Yet the movie wrestles free. Kassovitz opens and closes on a story about a man jumping out of a skyscraper and reflecting "so far so good" at intervals, until he hits the ground. It becomes a metaphor for his characters - high on the rushing exhilaration of their descent to destruction. So far so good might be the verdict on the director too. May he give us many more uncomfortable landings.

"Sometimes more life lies hidden in the opening of a door than in a question," reckons the down-at-heel hero (Mark Rylance) of the Quay brothers' Institute Benjamenta (no certificate), now showing at London's ICA. It might be the motto of all the brothers' work - their involved short animations and this, their first live action feature. The Quays put texture and imagery above self-conscious "statements". So Institute Benjamenta, like La Haine shot in black and white, at first beguiles us with the weird apparatus of its gauzy, expressionist world: a comb running through hair; a goldfish swimming in its bowl; a woman's painted lips; water sloshing across a floor - a suitably dream-like montage for a film sub-titled This Dream People Call Human Life.

As in the Quays' animation, the steady tracking of the camera mesmerises. But here there is also a discernible plot. The Institute is an academy of self-abasement, where drudges like Rylance's Jacob ("I hope I can be of service to someone in this life"), learn lessons of sub-servience. Like so many Jeeveses, they are drilled in the folding of a napkin, the abrupt, deferential step forward, and some useful phrases ("Be careful, Viscount, the tall tree is wobbling"). The superb Rylance, with his gentle, Germanic accent and sad, sunken eyes, resembles Kafka's Josef K. The Institute is Kafkaesque, but also dense with allusions to Orpheus, Sleeping Beauty and T S Eliot's Four Quartets. As Rylance is led further into the Institute's mystery, finding its centre as elusive as that of Peer Gynt's onion, the film opens out into an allegory about class. It is a demanding, even forbidding work, but richly rewarding and often surpassingly beautiful.

Hollywood has little to offer this week. The Scarlet Letter (15) is a crude and slipshod adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's great novel. Demi Moore's deficiencies are exposed by her shrill, anachronistic Hester Prynne. An actress cannot put on gravity like a new costume - especially when she spends so much time taking her actual costume off. Gary Oldman's minister - Prynne's lover and the cause of her ostracism - combines Scots rectitude and deep-welling passion; and there are salty minor performances from Joan Plowright and Robert Duvall. But Hawthorne's moral seriousness gets lost in a sea of slush.

Alfonso Arau's A Walk in the Clouds (PG) is a lush, old-fashioned melodrama, and almost endearingly inept. Keanu Reeves plays Paul Sutton, a soldier returning from the Second World War to a young wife in northern California, who tells him to make a man of himself and get a decent job - like being a chocolate salesman. Off he goes, with his samples. He meets a pregnant young woman on a bus, and agrees to pose as her husband to forestall the wrath of her proud father at home. So it goes on, thick with incident but leaden-paced. Arau, as in Like Water For Chocolate, drenches the movie in sunlight, courting absurdity with romantic cliches such as serenading bandaleros under the heroine's window. Reeves looks dandy in khaki, and tries touchingly hard, but delivers all his speeches in a dumb, bass monotone. "Paul Sutton," his love tells him, in one of the film's many clunking lines, "you are the most honourable man I have ever known." But Sutton's decency is crippling: a stiffness that spreads from the upper lip through the whole body.

Dumber than Dumb and Dumber, Tommy Boy (PG) is a comedy that might be a hoot after several beers but is otherwise best avoided. Chris Farley plays the obese offspring of a fat father, returning from college to help run the family car-parts business. Farley brings a sweetness to his stupidity, and performs his pratfalls with good grace and timing. David Spade has his moments too as Farley's sarcastic foil. Bo Derek provides an advertisement for the older woman - or Hollywood cosmetic surgery.

Cinema details: Review, page 92.

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