Sussing out the soundtrack: Mathieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine’

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La Haine is unlikely to be known for its soundtrack. It embodies more the violence and anger felt between the police and suburban youth of Paris, with no cinematic additions of a swooping orchestral accompaniment to compromise the integrity of the realism depicted. Despite this, music is not utterly absent. Though entering only sporadically, when it does, it helps to reflect the overriding message of the film that Kassovitz attempts so carefully to display. It reflects métissage; a racial mixture, a social conglomeration of people and their surroundings, with cultural references neatly tying everything into a gritty bow.

Though Kassovitz’s painstakingly intricate directorial techniques are unmistakably the most important tools in reflecting the gritty realism of the film, the soundtrack does so also. The music choice reflects the real sounds of the suburbs, incorporating and representing ethnicities and a hybrid culture most starkly portrayed by the three main characters of Vinz, a Jew; Saïd, an Arab, and Hubert, who is Afro-French. Visually, we see hybridity, but the film is constructed in a way that this hybridity must be all-encompassing: ignoring the soundtrack would have been a grave mistake the filmmaking crew.

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As the film begins, we see real documentary footage on riots and conflicts between youths and the police that were occurring in the early to mid 1990’s in the suburbs, where political figures like Jacques Chirac were condemning ‘le bruit et l’odeur’ (the stench and the noise) of the suburbs. This footage is seemingly being narrated by Bob Marley in the form of his song Burnin’ and Lootin’, reinforcing the message of police brutality through lyrics such as “could not recognise the faces standing over me / they were all dressed in uniforms of brutality.” The choice of music here is ambiguous, perhaps; the calm reggae beat, of which the genre typically communicates messages of peace, is reinterpreted by Kassovitz to convey confused messages of violence – indeed, of “burning” and “looting” – used to contrast the way in which this is “not the music of the ghetto.” The conflict of messages in the song is accordingly reflected in the banlieue and the conflicts between the youth and the police, and perhaps of the misconceptions associated with both parties. Discernibly, the sound of the banlieue is incorporated into the soundtrack; Kassovitz himself explained that he “used city sounds which became a music of our own – a growl, a layer of sound but a natural layer.”

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A more famous scene in La Haine concerning the soundtrack is when the French DJ Cut Killer remixes the refrain “assassin de la police” (from KRS-One’s Sound of da Police) with Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. Here, the derision towards the police is clear: it is also worth noting that Cut Killer wears a Cypress Hill t-shirt, whose anti-police anthems such as Pigs were well known and would have appealed to contemporary audiences.  By combining a working-class hero like Piaf with a style that is so varied in the form of urban protest, clearly the soundtrack isn’t simply there to function as mere emotional enhancement, but to contribute directly to the social message of hybridity. Indeed, “the music is racially mixed, in line with the ideological project of the film. It provides an ethnic rallying point rather than a divisive one” (Vincendeau) – when we first meet Vinz, he is dancing to a wedding horah song, thus identifying with his Jewish roots. This conglomeration of race and culture in the story finds itself in the soundtrack, thus being in line with Kassovitz’ overriding social message.

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