Updated: Apr 4
Cinematography is regarded as the art of storytelling through cinematic composition. Let’s peek into some cinematic excellence that shifted the culture of an entire nation.
La Haine (1995) follows three young men in the French suburban "ghetto," over a span of twenty-four hours. Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert, growing up with high levels of diversity coupled with racist and oppressive police forces, experience raised tensions and a critical breaking point. This stylistic slurry of cinema blends innovative and experimental camera technique, a variety of tones, early hip hop, fashion, and French expressionist culture.
The film is available to watch for free on YouTube. Keep an eye out for hotlinks throughout the article to jump to different parts of the film. Spoilers ahead!
We’ll dive in with some cinematic highlights intertwined with additional commentary from Paris native, comedian, filmmaker, creative, and friend, Noman Hosni:
“La Haine [pronounced ‘lə.eɪn’] came out when I was a teenager. I went to see it at the movies twice. [The ending] shocked me so much [that] I had to rewatch the entire movie. Back in the day, I grew up in the suburbs of Paris. Unlike America, the suburbs are lower class and the city is upper class. [La Haine was one of] the first films to talk about ‘us’ from the suburbs.
“It was weird to see actors talking this way, like us, in the same lingo, in the same language, as us. Those influenced me to do what I do (comedy, movies, scripts)… also the reference to Taxi Driver.”
Before we put on our film geek goggles, a super fun moment (and arguably the most famous reference from the film) is La Haine’s homage to Taxi Driver (1976).
Vinz’s ominous foreshadowing of the film’s ending mounts a significant amount of tension early on in the film. The experimental transition of the loud gunshot into the following scene rings like a funeral bell. It’s a super cool moment that breaks a lot of cinematic ‘rules.’
OK- enough playing around. Let’s go deeper into some different ways to tell a story through cinematography: form, camera angles, frame composition, color/tones.
Form is a very ethereal term that, to me, essentially means the structuring of a story. The interesting structure of La Haine is that it all occurs within 24 hours. Realistically building to a climax within the span of a day is difficult, and director Mathieu Kassovitz uses various techniques to build tension and momentum towards the film's volcanic ending.
Moreover, it’s worth mentioning that the first half of the film takes place in the suburbs of Paris, while the latter half occurs in the city. Kassovitz fosters the stark contrast between suburbs and city through this choice.
“It was hard to travel into Paris [when I was younger]. There were fights [and riots] and there weren’t movies talking about it.”
The film starts off high as we step onto the streets of 1990’s France. Riots, police brutality, classism, and contrast set the scene as we step into Vinz’s shoes and witness the last day of his life. While I would love to dig into the rich opening of the film, there simply isn’t time, but I highly encourage you to enjoy watching it on your own.
There’s a wonderful establishing overhead shot of the French suburbs that gives the viewer the experience of soaring over the courtyards.
“This was actually one of the first drone shots in film. You can see how heavy the camera is from the way it flies. I like the way hip-hop music compliments the shot. [It makes me feel like] those buildings aren’t so awful. It makes me find the beauty in it. It made me find the aesthetic in everything. Hip-hop also had a huge influence on the film and our culture.”
In the [overhead shot], we hear DJ Cut Killer, a notorious French DJ, spin wax from an apartment window. Combining the overhead shot with the hip hop gives us an interesting amalgamation of signifiers.
Hip hop is about making something from nothing (A. Kikora Franklin). The entire art revolves around contrasting elements working together to make music, fashion, dance, and knowledge. Remember that word, ‘contrast?’ Keep holding onto it, because it’ll come full circle soon as we travel into Paris.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, the film is in black in white (which, fun fact, was not planned- the film was actually shot in color then reverted to b/w in post production), so it’s worth reviewing chromatic values (the shading of tones from light to dark).
Ask a cinephile anything about chromatic values in films like Citizen Kane or To Kill a Mockingbird if you want a free three hour long lecture on the subject.
Ok- back to La Haine- and now we’re in Paris- and we’re talking tones. Let’s look at a moment where director Kassovitz plays with chromatic values and composition. Composition refers to how the visual elements on screen (actors, set, decoration, etc.) appear in respect to each other and within the frame itself.
Let’s see just how much Kassovitz communicates story through chromatic values and composition.
To bring you up to speed on the plot, at this point we’re at the middle of the film, and Saïd (middle) feels forced to choose sides between his friends, the unpredictable Vinz (left) and peacemaker Hubert (right). This single frame alone gives us that information and more. Hold on tight, things are about to get real 10th grade AP Literature (remember left = bad, right = good).
Vinz, who has been making irresponsible decisions thus far in the story, is below (literally and figuratively) Hubert on the right, illustrating where the scales of morality are currently tipped at this point in the story. The contrasting chromatic values on the right are significantly brighter than those on the left, further highlighting Hubert’s morality.
Saïd, younger and more impressionable feeling forced to choose a side in their rifting friendships, looks up to Vinz (as an older brother and compositionally in the frame), foreshadowing the direction in which their friendships are drifting.
I could go on, and on about how Vinz and Hubert land perfectly in the golden ratio (the red line below), but we don’t have all day here. As if I didn’t need another reason to love this film.
We went through a lot today, discussing composition, chromatic values, camera angles, and more- so what makes cinematography good?
Obviously, as with all art, it’s subjective and sometimes words can’t explain why you do or do not like something. Personally, I think great cinematography blends visual, emotional, and poetic imagery, incorporating contrast and form. We can all agree that cinematography is an underappreciated, beautiful craft.
Any closing remarks, Noman?
“If you haven’t seen this film, watch it.”
During his time in Switzerland, Noman was a regular at the Swiss Comedy Club, and in 2009 he won the “Nuit De L’Humour” prize, before going to London, England for his very own, French-speaking, live comedy show, “Noman’s Land”. In 2015, he began writing and performing in skits for the show, “Folie Passagère”, on National French TV France 2.
Forever a man of the people, and an outlaw of the French government, Noman’s YouTube channel was shut down at 200K subscribers by YouTube France, not long after the video for his show, “Histoire de Weed” (taped in Montreal in 2017 on the day of marijuana legalization in Canada), had crossed the million view threshold.
In 2019, Noman moved to LA, and made the full-time switch from performing in French to performing in English. He is currently rocking every stage in the United States with his new show, “Pardon My French”. You won't want to miss it!