Thursday, January 21, 2016
“le malaise de banlieue”:
Center and Periphery in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine
The French word bavure means “blunder” or “slipup.” Depending on where you are and to whom you are speaking, it has also come to mean specifically, a police “slipup.” In fact, these police “slipups” have become so common that one film scholar writes that they “have become a topic for comic films” (Vincendeau). Since 1981, there have been more than three hundred fatal police bavures in France, and many of the victims have been young immigrant men from France’s banlieue, or, its suburbs—banlieue being another tricky French term to which I will return. Mathieu Kassovitz began writing the script to La Haine (or Hate) on April 6, 1993. This was the day that a young man from Zaire was fatally shot during a now well-known police bavure—while handcuffed to a radiator, while in police custody. It should also be noted that we are here together today to watch La Haine, with the ten-year anniversary approaching of the weeks of rebellion that spread throughout all of France back in 2005, in response to the deaths of two young boys fleeing from the police in the Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois.
Since its release in 1995, La Haine has been credited as having established a new genre of French Film—the “banlieue film” or the “cinema de banlieue.” For the first time since the American Western, it has been argued, a new genre of film has come along that is primarily defined spatially and by “its geographical location” (Higbee 38). The French word, banlieue, though in its most literal sense simply meaning “suburbs,” is, in a spatial, social, cultural, and economic sense, a fairly loaded term. Just as much as it denotes the suburban periphery of a major urban center such as Paris, it is also used to signify the Corbusien high-rise, housing projects that make up the built environment of these spaces; the social and economic isolation that is intrinsic to these spaces; and the perhaps inevitable discontent, criminality, and rebellious activity for which the banlieue have become notorious. As one encounters in La Haine, the term banlieue is also used to denote “the ghetto” and “the projects.”
An examination of whether or not La Haine is the genesis of the aforementioned genre is not really the purpose of this introduction—although I will say something about this below. What a gesture towards these arguments does help to emphasize, is the undeniably crucial role these spaces and sites play in the film—one can not discuss the story and characters without attention to the built environment in which the events of the story take place. In fact, in this context, the temptation to view the banlieue of Paris through an architecturally and environmentally deterministic lens, is a temptation to which I am going to unapologetically acquiesce at this time. To me, a logical question is, why wouldn’t human beings periodically react violently and subversively to being so literally relegated to peripheral spaces wholly outside of any means to social and economic mobility and equality? Add to this isolation the unbearable pressure of a sadistic and xenophobic police force, whose presence is often analogous to that of an occupying army, and it is no wonder that France has had to deal with the episodic outbreak of riots and rebellion over the course of the last few decades.
The social and economic isolation seemingly built into the modern public housing project, as a universally applied paradigm for housing poor and working people, has plagued even the Parisian banlieue’s American counterparts—which have often been centrally located in urban centers. This kind of isolation and marginalization is simply more spatially and socially acute out in the French countryside. Unemployment in France’s banlieue is over twice the national rate, and over 40% among the young people of these peripheral spaces (Economist). More than half the residents are of foreign origin—mostly Algerian, Moroccan, and sub-Saharan African—and at least three-quarters of this population live in subsidized housing (Economist). Approximately 36% of these residents live below the poverty line, which is three times the national average (Economist). “The sense of isolation is social as much as physical,” one critic concludes, “[t]oo many teenagers grow up with little or no connection to the world of work.”
In his foundational text, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, Neil Smith provides a theoretical framework that not only helps to explain how these spatial, social, and economic incongruities come about and continue to exist, but also illustrates how they are in fact intrinsic to the system of global capitialism as a whole. “It is not just that capitalism fails to develop evenly,” Smith explains, “that due to accidental and random factors the geographical development of capitalism represents some stochastic deviation from a generally even process” (4). Continuing, Smith writes,
The logic of uneven development derives specifically from the opposed tendencies, inherent in capital, toward differentiation but simultaneous equalization…Capital is continually invested in the built environment in order to produce surplus value and expand the basis of capital itself. But equally, capital is continually withdrawn from the built environment so that it can move elsewhere and take advantage of higher profit rates…The pattern which results in the landscape is well known: development at one pole and underdevelopment at the other. (6)
This process of uneven development takes place at all of the different spatial scales. Most signficant for this introduction, Smith’s theory helps to explain the social and economic unevenness that occurs between centers and peripheries. This is an unevenness that the film La Haine starkly illustrates—specifically that which exists between Paris and its periphery.
The spatial dichotomy between center and periphery is no new matter in discussions of Paris. In the first expose to The Arcades Project, written in 1933 and entitled “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Walter Benjamin writes tellingly of Paris’s most influential urban planner—Georges Eugène Haussman. Working with/for Louis Napoleon (or Napoleon III), Haussman modernized Paris through measures such as the drastic widening of its boulevards (making barricades impossible and facilitaing the deployment of troops in times of rebellion). This is now of course regarded as the “Haussmanization” of Paris. Benjamin explains that in 1846, while speaking to the National Assembly, Haussman “vented his hatred of the rootless urban population, which keeps increasing as a result of his projects” (12). Continuing in this vein, Benjamin writes of how
Rising rents drive the proletariat into the suburbs. The quartiers [neighborhoods] of Paris in this way lose their distinctive physiognomy. The “Red Belt” forms. Haussman gave himself the title of “demolition artist.” He viewed his work as his calling, and emphasizes this in his memoirs. Meanwhile he estranges the Parisians from their city. They no longer feel at home there, and start to become conscious of the inhuman character of the metropolis. (Benjamin 12)
It is estimated that between the years of 1853 and 1870, as Paris underwent its Haussmanization, nearly 350,000 people were displaced, and it was into the aforementioned “Red Belt” that many of them were forced. It is here in this peripheral “Belt” that the banlieue of modernity have grown and spread since the mid-1960s—a spatial upheaval, that is arguably comparable in scale to the Haussmanization of Paris itself. “Capitalism is always transforming space in its own image,” Smith helps to explain in this regard, “but in periods of expansion this [often] amounts to the filling in of patterns more or less set at an ealier period” (208).
It is here that I would like to suggest that Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I know About Her (1967) is perhaps the godmother of the modern banlieue film. Godard seems to have been the first filmmaker to see all that was wrong in these spaces and sites, as they were being built. He saw this massive infrastructural upheaval of the region surrounding Paris as an unnatural assault on the social and moral fabric of the city. Combining his disgust for the United States’ war on Vietnam with his concern for what was being done to the Paris region, Godard creates a kind of visual dialectic between images of the burnt faces of Vietnamese victims of the United States’ shameless use of napalm and footage of the incessant and large-scale construction projects disfiguring Paris’s peripheries at the time. Godard creates a jarring testament to the ways in which the demands of capitalism and the conditions of modernity have filled in some of the perhaps indelible spatial patterns inscribed into the French landscape during Haussman’s time. These repeated juxtapositions also give a very literal meaning to the main character, Juliette Janson’s (Marina Vlady) repeated assertions that “a face is like a landscape.”
In 2 or 3 Things I know About Her Godard presciently saw and reacted to the demoralizing nature of Paris’ banlieue, even before disinvestment and neglect socially and economically isolated them. 2 or 3 Things focuses on the prositution of working class housewives in the banlieue and the prostitution of the region around Paris. “Naturally such regional development facilitates the state’s class discrimination policy,” Godard warns in his whispered voiceover, “and allows the large monopolies to shape its economy, regardless of the needs and aspirations of its eight million inhabitants.” From this bit of whispered monologue, Godard cuts directly to a sweeping pan of a modern landscape filled with the kind of “towers in a park” that are straight out of the legendary architect, Le Corbusier’s “radiant city” model—the architectural prototype of the modern high-rise, housing project, whether it be those in the suburban periphery of French cities, or those built in the last half of the twentieth century, in the urban centers of American cities.
The universal application of this one standardized model of housing poor and working people is a manifestation of capitalism’s effect on space. Borrowing from Henri Lefebvre, Smith explains that “with the advent of twentieth century capitalism, space becomes ‘dominant but dead’” (226). Smith continues:
The death of space is brought about by its being rendered abstract at the hands of capitalism. The world of commodity production and exchange, the logic and strategies of accumulation, the oppressive and marginalizing rule of the state…these all bring about an abstract space that is simultaneously disconnected from landscapes of everyday lives, and at the same time crushes existing difference and differences. (226)
Place, as created, sustained, experienced, and felt at the local and lived scale is obliterated and flattened to fit into the abstract space under global capitalism, regardless of social, cultural, or spatial differences or distinctions.
Unlike a number of later films in the “cinema de banlieue,” Kassovitz does indeed make La Haine very much about Paris and its periphery, by having the three friends around whom the film’s story revolves—Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoul), Vinz (Vincent Cassel), and Hubert (Hubert Koundé)—have to flee from their banlieue to Paris. In the scene preceding their flight to Paris, the brother of the young man who has been beaten into a coma by the police, has acquired a shotgun and tries taking revenge on the police. A scuffle breaks out, and the trio end up being chased by the police through a series of tunnels in a building. This is a compelling way in which Kassovitz conveys a sense of the trio and their friends as rats being chased through “rat holes.” Vinz at one point declares that it is exactly these kinds of “rat holes” in which they are forced to live, and he vents his hatred for them later in the film. A kind of shrinking of space occurs as Saïd, Vinz, and Hubert flee through these tunnels as they are chased by the police, with them finally escaping—like rats—out of a small hole in a wall through which they must crouch and crawl to get through. From here (and after a brief scene on the train heading to Paris) Kassovitz establishes a kind of explosive, disorienting, and even humbling expansiveness the trio experience in the very first scene in Paris, through a dramatic pull-back shot that effectively shrinks the trio before our very eyes as the Parisian cityscape in the background rises up threateningly around them.
Once in Paris, Saïd, Hubert, and Vinz randomly happen upon an art opening. This scene is a personal favorite, and telling for a number of reasons—most significantly, because of how out of place and unwelcome it establishes the trio as being in Paris. They are essentially drifting, even in a space and situation peopled by the kind of often well-meaning, hip urbanites who like to claim a connection to and a kind of commiseration with the culture from which the trio come, but who wholly underestimate the social and economic gulf that separates them. This seems especially important to our here and now. The conversation about center and periphery couldn’t be more important than it is in the city of Detroit at this time, as little has managed to trickle out beyond downtown and “Midtown”; as young people from Detroit’s neighborhoods are increasingly locked out of the mall-like space of downtown, with its private police force and ubiquitous cameras; and considering the illusory nature of what passes as “public space.” Paris’ banlieue have been described as "a shapeless magma of ten million inhabitants, a series of grey, indifferent constructions, a circular purgatory with Paris-Paradise at the center." Although Detroit’s peripheral neighborhoods do not house nearly as many inhabitants, and although Detroit’s high-rise, housing projects are all but erased, we are indeed talking about the same kind of spatially defined isolation and marginalization—the same kind “of circular purgatory” full of poor and working people who are increasingly locked out of that “Paradise at the center.”