Class Oppression Among Artistic Expression

Paper by Jack Connell.

\With the consistent progressive nature of French politics and media, it is quite common that films introduce incredibly controversial and relevant topics in order to stir up the public opinion, and ensure that said controversial matters are widely discussed. Mathieu Kassovitz, a highly respected and well seasoned Parisian director, dedicated himself to exposing these controversial ideas, those being police brutality, the drastic effects of class division and the dangerous, though lively nature of life in impoverished areas of Paris. With the conception of La Haine (1995), or “Hatred,” it is quite evident that Kassovitz and his production team aimed to make a beautiful film that bridges the gap between extreme realism and symbolism. Within the film, the three protagonists, Vinz, Sayid and Hubert, who all happen to be different ethnicities that make up a vast majority of Parisian immigrants, wrestle with the concept of authority and identity within a world that is closed off to them, and split down the middle in terms of class. One scene in particular highlights this idea of class division, and takes place out of the protagonists’ element, in an art gallery. Throughout the span of approximately three and a half minutes, we witness these three young men attempt to traverse the unfamiliar nature of their environment, passing through stages of understanding and eventually creating turmoil when they realize that society does not want them to belong anywhere but the projects. Kassovitz utilizes contrasting background imagery within the setting, symbolic shifting music and sounds contributing to the Mise en Scene, brilliant character interactions, as well as meticulously choreographed cinematic shots in order to represent the feeling of separation that takes place between the three protagonists and the high class crowd within the art gallery. This message is incredibly important for Kassovitz to portray to the audience, because many individuals have no conception of the damage that class division projects onto the lower class; In this scene, we will focus on exactly that.

The abundant character interactions and conversations in this film create a sense of familiarity with the three main characters, while simultaneously establishing social commentary within the interactions themselves. La Haine focuses heavily on these three characters and their reactionary nature towards situations, whether threatening or hilarious; therefore, we will first focus on the interactions of these characters during this scene. There are three subscenes of interactions that portray the position of unfamiliarity, uncomfortability, and eventually, complete fear that the characters are subjected to when entering an environment intended for the higher class. The first prominent interaction is with a server, working in the gallery. He offers Sayid a drink, who accepts it graciously, saying “Thank you Charles!” (La Haine, 1:15:50) This interaction is important as the first of a few, because it builds their confidence in the environment of higher class; they are being served, so clearly they are welcome here! What is not accounted for in their minds, however, is the fact that “Charles,” is a working class individual who serves the higher class, which is why they, of a similar class are met with regard, rather than disgust. The second interpersonal interaction with the protagonists is perhaps the most important. Upon seeing two attractive women walk in, the three decide to approach them and attempt to ask them out. Although each one of them have clearly had experience with women, they haven’t had experience with women of this social status. Sayid, trying to flirt with her, announces his usual sexual remarks and an immediate proposal to go on a date. Unfortunately, because of the woman’s class, status, and view of herself, she makes fun of his attempts, stating, “You’re all alike!” (La Haine, 1:16:32) Referring to men like him as a collective. This interaction, followed by more teasing and prodding, embarrasses Sayid, who is not only out of his element, but now being targeted as the butt of a joke. This overstimulation, and feeling of not belonging leads him to lash out, reaching up a threatening hand towards the woman’s face. This action, along with the shouting from the sides of the women and the three protagonists back and forth, trigger the third and final interaction, which is with an old, white man who represents the authority. When faced with this man, all three of the young men commence in a shouting match while he begins to push them out of the door. The three then smash their glasses on the floor, tear down and break a statue, and scream a multitude of profanities not at one person, but at the crowd, as if not one or two people had offended them, but the entire group of people. After they leave, the man who pushed the three out of the gallery turns around and mutters “Troubled Youth,” (La Haine, 1:17:14) to the shocked crowd. This humorous comment is an excellent way to frame the end of this scene, due to its irony. “Troubled” is a massive misunderstanding of the three main characters. The environment they had been in was unfamiliar, strange and hostile towards their very existence. At first glance, the three young men seem like villains amongst ordinary people; however, the disgusted stares in their direction, the highly juxtaposed outfits, the differing dialects and so much more contributed to the increasingly threatened feeling that had been building up inside the three of them. Their eventual snap is not from a troubled childhood, bad manners, or barbaric instincts, but from the unfamiliarity and fear that they felt when in this location specifically, followed by the threatening nature of the people around them.

Heavily contributing to the characters’ emotions and reactions when subjected to unfamiliar surroundings is the setting, and visual camerawork composition of the scene. Little is noticeable at first glance, but a deeper look into the composition of the scene reveals meticulously curated shots, actors and props that contribute to the art gallery scene’s overall message. It is worth mentioning that the entire film is shot in black and white, for several aesthetic and symbolic reasons. An author for Artifice magazine who goes by Tedytak references an interview with Matheiu Kassovitz, interpreting the uncolored film as a solemn, dark way of portraying Paris, which is usually quite romanticized. Tedytak writes, “The black and white add something to the architectural aspect of the film, which is set near Paris. It removes the romanticism of the City of Lights.” (Tedytak, 1) This idea is portrayed further in the art gallery scene, which consists of white walls, with white paintings and a crowd of white people to fill the gaps. The overflowing abundance of white is present throughout the entire scene, and pierces the viewers eyes after staring at it for so long. Sayid, Vinz and Hubert are not only wearing dark, contrasting colors, but are dark in complexion (other than Vinz, who is light skinned, but Jewish, which is a minority group in France). Kassovitz effectively bridges the gap between race and class, and aims to add to the unfamiliarity and uncomfortability of the characters, who are not only underdressed due to their position in the social hierarchy, but also minorities amongst the onslaught of white, well-dressed individuals. The black and white appearance of the film very apparently adds to the color choices made when framing this scene, making the contrast of the main characters and the background characters almost blinding. In addition to the color choices of this scene, Kassovitz and his team employ deliberate techniques of “othering,” a term coined by Guardian author, John A Powell. Powell states, “Othering is not about liking or disliking someone. It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the [favored] group.” (Powell, 1) As explained earlier, the three protagonists finesse their way into a conversation with a young woman, with the intent to ask her out. As the conversation progresses, both sides become increasingly hostile toward one another, after Sayid lashes out as a result of being provoked. Throughout the extent of this shot, many background actors are visible behind the two women, and no one behind the three main characters, who are out of their element. This is purposely included with the intention of showing the power of the upper class, especially in their own element. Over the span of just about sixty seconds, the protagonists feel increasingly threatened and uncomfortable, and this is visually portrayed by the presentation of characters on either side of the frame. At the end of this shot, when others step in to break up the argument, the camera pans to the right, past the three main characters to reveal several other background characters behind them. This adds to the threatening feeling held by the protagonists, as their position is represented as cornered and trapped between the abundant amount of people who do not identify with them, in race or class. In the last few moments of the scene, when the three are escorted out of the gallery, the middle aged man who is escorting them has a firm demeanor, semi-formal attire and white skin. His character is included simply to portray authority, as previously stated. In order to affirm his role as the authority figure, Kassovitz makes the decision to place him centered, right behind a white pylon that supports the ceiling. While this is a small, nearly unnoticeable detail, it undoubtedly represents the firm, immovable power the man, or more broadly, the white upper class has on the lower, minority class. As the man moves forward, pushing them out of the door, the pylon stands tall, and strikes the eye by being static, and pure white. This, amongst many other deliberate framing of shots within this scene, help Kassovitz to develop his narrative, which critiques and denounces the immense, immoveable power that white, high class individuals have over the lower class; and how this leads the lower class to feel incredibly uncomfortable in the presence of these individuals or their environments in society.

The intricacies of symbolism in La Haine are far too plentiful to list, therefore, one final important use directorial choice will be highlighted in this essay, which is the use of music and Mise en Scene to connect the emotions of the audience with the emotions of the main characters, and the scene itself. Chronologically, the music shifts with the intent of illustrating the feeling of the scene. Towards the beginning of the scene, the music is lighthearted, with elements of funk and jazz. Throughout the length of this song, the characters are carelessly perusing through the gallery with not a care in the world, ignoring the background characters, and even helping themselves to the provided refreshments. At the moment of the cut to the next half of the scene, the song changes entirely, to a new, slow, eerie piece mainly consisting of violin. The first part, as previously described, represents the uncomfortable position the characters are now forced into, when they are yearning to talk to the women in the art gallery. The violins play slowly and mysteriously which adds to the fear that the young men have to approach these women of a higher class than them. While speaking to the women, the violins increase in tempo, and eventually become unreasonably quick. While Said is offended by the women, and threatens to hit one of them, the violins screech and scream at breakneck speeds. We, as the audience, subconsciously relate these noises with a threat, which relates to Sayid’s reaction to the unexpected responses by the two women. Finally, when more characters begin to get involved, and the three protagonists devolve into a shouting match with the rest of the gallery, the music cuts altogether, highlighting and emphasizing the embarrassing, obnoxious reactions of Sayid, Hubert and Vinz. No music is needed during this last shot, due to the characters exhibiting their emotions so obviously and outright, rather than them being up for interpretation. The use of music in the movie as a whole is incredibly important. Just as Kassovitz utilized monochrome filmmaking to emphasize the lack of romanticism in the real world, there is no music present throughout this movie that is added in post production. In the real world, we have to decipher and traverse life without the emotional aid of music at all times, and therefore, in this overwhelmingly realist film, so do Sayid, Vinz and Hubert. The music that is present, as aforementioned, is all Mise en Scene, and is heard and witnessed by the characters within the film. This music is usually heard quietly in the background of conversations, and contributes to subconscious symbolism of the film’s themes, rather than bluntly oversharing them. The combination of subtle auditory hints, and harsh realism within the film create a very intimate and relatable feeling within the viewer. We feel the uncomfort of the characters not only because they are exhibiting these emotions, but because of the strategically curated filmmaking techniques set in place by Kassovitz and his team. With the aid of these aspects of sound, Kassovitz creates an environment that feels hostile and dark, despite the visual abundance of white. To those who have never felt social degradation and segregation before, this feeling is very convincing, and may shift the ideals and opinions of the audience.

Based on societal prejudices and historical wrongdoings, Kassovitz paints a clear picture of a fine line between classes within France, and the world itself. La haine is a film that dives deep into controversial topics such as racial and class division, and is unafraid of the uncomfort it may provoke in audiences. Remi Fournier Lanzoni, author of French Cinema, explains that La Haine attempts to portray the youth within the lower class. “The rendering of today’s generation of aggravated, disenchanted youths shows that violence in itself is a reaction to social powerlessness.” (Lanzoni, Ch8 Sec10) This idea of powerlessness within a world that you are unfamiliar with is dealt with abundantly throughout the film, and especially within the art gallery scene. Vinz, Sayid and Hubert are not familiar with the high class environment they have stumbled upon, and react in ways that are completely understandable, feeling fear, powerlessness and confusion in an environment that is built to keep them out. Kassovitz is not saying that the impoverished population does not belong in an art gallery, but rather that impoverished communities are so vastly different from wealthy ones that said wealthy ones appear to be systematically built to keep the impoverished people away from them. From the colors on the walls, to the reactions of the people, this art gallery is the perfect metaphor for the whole of upper class society. These protagonists, although being well equipped for life in their own section of Paris, in the projects, are ill-prepared for the unfair treatment and unaccepting attitudes of those who are above them financially. Kassovitz makes it quite evident that he does not accept this model of society and feels as though individuals should be measured by their worth as a human, rather than how much they make, what they wear, what color skin they have, or where they live.

Works Cited:
French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present 2nd Edition, by Rémi Fournier Lanzoni
The Artifice Magazine, author: tedytak
The Guardian, author: John A Powell ring-and-how-to-avoid-them

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