Neither La Haine (1995) nor Amélie (2001) are overtly plot-driven films. The stories provide character studies and glimpses into how the figures interact with those around them. Amélie follows the titular twenty-something waitress (Audrey Tautou) as she makes her way around Paris trying to improve the lives of her family, friends, colleagues and neighbours while looking for love. It is a modern-day fairy tale composed of numerous amusing, poignant, and beautifully detailed intersecting vignettes.
Amélie couldn’t be further from the rather nihilistic narrative of La Haine, which centres on a group of three impoverished youths (Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé and Said Taghmaoui). Spending 24 hours wandering aimlessly through the city, in the wake of a night of clashes with the police, the trio seeks out violence, money, and a distraction from their mundane lives. It is a powerhouse of a film that looks not only at the conflicts in Parisian society but at the struggles between destruction and redemption, maturity and insolence, dreams and harsh reality.
The Parisian backdrop
Amélie can be seen as Jeunet’s love letter to the romanticised image of Paris, which comes to mind whenever someone mentions the city. The story unfolds in the heart of the picturesque Montmartre where the café and market culture is flourishing, and other episodes are set in prominent sites including the Sacré–Coeur and Le Gare du Nord. Amélie’s Paris transforms the city into a giant playground, filled with an air of joyful innocence and vibrancy; each shot could be the image for a postcard.
If Amélie shows us Paris as the familiar ‘city of love’ and poetic beauty, La Haine exposes a core of hate and malice within the capital. It presents us with the Paris you would never visit as a tourist and rarely see in films. We are presented with the seedy, marginal suburbs, or banlieues in which crime, corruption, and racism are institutionalised, and poverty is inescapable. Everywhere is barren or rundown and the vandalised council estates are a world apart from the winding, cobbled streets of Montmartre.
The Parisian characters
Just as the city in Amélie is elevated to a level of almost magical charm, so, too, are the film’s central characters, who exude the allure and stylishness associated with Paris. Amélie herself is benevolent, charismatic, and able to mould the people around her for the better with a pixie-like quality. Her boyfriend, played by none other than La Haine’s director, Kassovitz, is a young romantic who stereotypically rides around the city on a moped. Amélie’s neighbor, whose existence is based on repeatedly reproducing Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party, is a good example of this close link between the world of the film and the traditional, artistic conception of Paris.
In La Haine, the main characters feel alienated from this view of Paris. They are of Jewish, Arab, and African descent, and are disillusioned with their social exile in the city. When they venture into the centre from the suburbs they are made to feel like unwanted, powerless outsiders by those “above” them in the Parisian hierarchy. The three troubled youths show signs of humor, intelligence, and the sense that they could have made something of themselves in a more tolerant and fair society. It is the combination of these elements that makes the final devastating scene of the film so affecting.
Almost everyone who has seen Amélie has noted how visually impressive the film is. In a Paris where the people and places are hyperbolised, the colours are saturated and heightened in their vividness. The film fuses together images of fine clarity with shots of the Seine, and lakes that seem to have been inspired by Monet and his contemporaries. The cinematography is a celebration of the artistic heritage of the city; it is impossible not to be in awe of the intense exquisiteness on display here.
Contrasting to Amélie in its execution, La Haine is shot entirely in black and white to emphasise the cold, grittiness of Paris. Yet the film is no less visually arresting than Amélie. For all its shots of poverty, the camera captures some stunning images of the surroundings and the characters. Kassovitz subtly demonstrates that beauty can exist even in the most desolate of situations. The film is filled with nuanced symbols and visual metaphors, none more effective than the opening shot of a lighter setting ablaze a puddle of petrol, pre-empting the ignition of violence which follows.
The soundtrack to Amélie is what brought its composer, Yann Tiersen, immediate international recognition. Its clear, lively, and harmonious tone superbly accompanies the visuals of the city. With its heavy use of the accordion and piano pieces reminiscent of Satie, the soundtrack is quintessentially Parisian.
La Haine’s most notable use of music is found in the famous scene where the DJ, Cut Killer, makes a cameo appearance playing in the estates as the camera provides an aerial shot of the banlieues. He remixes NWA’s rap anthem ‘F*ck Da Police’ with Edith Piaf’s ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’, creating an unlikely, sublime combination. The song is a playfully irreverent attack on the icon of Parisian bohemia and the French musical tradition, taking this classic love song and turning into an inciting war cry of youth rebellion. It is a symbol of the romantic Paris being undercut by the real way of life in the city.