The Cinematic City: How La Haine & Deprisa, Deprisa Exploit Urban Decay

Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Something a little different today, I've decided to dig out some of my old essays from university. Other than being used for coursework, they'll just end up lying around on my computer unread so I thought I'd share them on this blog for others to enjoy. This one was from a module I did called 'the cinematic city' where we discussed how cities are framed through cinema.

La Haine and Deprisa, Deprisa both exploit urban decay, ruins and wasteland to create their image of city life through cinema. I'll be focusing on the link between location and identity for the delinquents in both films and also looking at their place in society and their city. I will also discuss the link between the decay of the city and the nostalgia it provokes as well as looking at the effects on a city and the people that live in it.

In Mathieu Kassovitz’ black and white movie, La Haine (1995), we follow a day in the lives of the three protagonists Vinz, Saïd and Hubert who reside in a decaying 'banlieue' (suburb) of Paris. Their neighbourhood is made up of tightly-packed housing estates with a focus on concrete gigantism and ugly ‘‘grandes ensembles’ - a term used for a series of massive apartment complexes. These buildings were designated to house both low-paid French workers and immigrants, but being on the suburbs, they lacked any real connection to central Paris or a busy city life. The children of these immigrants and French workers, like the delinquents of La Haine, became increasingly involved in crime and violence. Thus, gangs are formed and graffiti is sprayed across peoples homes, creating a sinister image of bad housing and social deprivation. 

The wasteland of the 'banlieue' is created by planners and architects on tight budgets and limited space; and inevitably these failed projects become nothing more than imprisonment camps for people who live there and for future generations. This bad planning combined with poor resources result in their inhabitants being enveloped in a depressing area of racism, institutional abandonment, crime, police surveillance, harassment and brutality. With the resultant effect that the 'banlieue' becomes a borderline, heterogeneous space - neither situated in town nor country - creating almost a “no man’s land" in which the delinquents live.

The protagonists are often in scenes wandering the 'banlieue' and spending their time in liminal places such as empty playgrounds, open rooftops, cellars and empty carparks which emphasises the lack of things to do in their neighbourhood. They spend their time struggling to entertain themselves and constantly under the watchful eye of the police. Though the large wastelands and empty spaces they frequent would appear open and free, it actually restricts them and entraps them in a life of tedium and boredom. 

In comparison, in Deprisa Deprisa we often see the protagonists meeting in clubs and bars whereas in La Haine, they meet only in derelict, lonely places where little to no money has to be spent and nothing much happens. The only places we actually see them spending money is in a supermarket where they can’t even afford to pay the full amount, as well as Saïd who doesn’t have enough to pay for a merguez sausage therefore is compelled to steal it; the rest of their money is earned or spent through drugs or robbery. These particular scenes emphasise the impact the economy has on the gradual decay of the urban city because there is little or no money to put back into the economy; thus, buildings deteriorate, businesses close down and the city loses it’s sense of life and purpose.

A majority of the La Haine is spent in central Paris where the protagonists initially go to visit a friend in hospital. Now out of the banlieue, they actually feel out of place and we can see this from several examples. Firstly, when they gate crash an art exhibition where they are surrounded by upper class, wealthy Parisians and are eventually kicked out for bad behaviour and rude language. There are scenes of them taking advantage of the free food and drink, flirting with the women and being rejected. We see that they don’t know how to behave in such environments and it highlights the obvious disjunctions between the plush, affluent city of Paris against the dark, bare 'banlieue' surrounding it. 

More than ever, being in central Paris makes them feel like social outcasts who have been rejected by society. They feel they have no sense of belonging so they end up attracting crime and trouble like magnets. This tells us that the built up, lively and vibrant city of Paris holds no place for them and they only seem to feel comfortable in their decaying banlieue. However, it is not only in Paris they feel rejected as they are ejected from many places they spend time in the banlieue. Their neighbourhood is presented as a desert-like wasteland for them which has no feeling of private space. For example, we can look at the scene on the rooftops where the police come to tell them they must leave, despite them doing nothing wrong. Modern society rejects them, yet the spaces that remain do no welcome them either and they are seen as a nuisance or troublemakers.

We can also look at the example of the scene in the children's park when a journalist and cameraman stop to film them as objects of fascination. Vinz shouts at them "On est pas à Thoiry!!” - ‘Thoiry' being a safari park in Paris; which tells us that from an outsider's perspective, the place where the three protagonists live is almost foreign to them and the people who live in it are like zoo animals to onlookers. They have precious little private space even in their own banlieue or the city; and the world in which they live becomes a restricted and trapped place. Living in such a place for Vinz, Saïd and Hubert, cuts them off from resources such as an education or the chance to have a job. The reality is that they will be stuck in a vicious cycle of violence and crime - without any prospect of a decent future - and will continue to exist in their deteriorating city. 

In Carlos Saura’s Deprisa, Deprisa (1981), similarly to La Haine, we follow the lives of a group of juvenile delinquents. The characters live in the suburbs of Madrid who commit robbery to finance their vices. Firstly, we can look at how we are first introduced to the protagonists, Pablo and Meca. In the first scene we see them in the midst of stealing a car. They are filmed inside the car which as we see throughout the film, becomes a recurring theme. This theme automatically sets up a metaphor for their hopes, as a movement away from the urban decay of Madrid. The car represents hope and escapism from this urban decay to a better place for the delinquents. This is a significant contrast with La Haine because we are rarely shown Vinz, Saïd or Hubert driving in a car. They make an attempt to rob one, but are caught by the police and flee the situation. The protagonists of Deprisa, Deprisa are perhaps more hopeful about their future than those of La Haine

Another important scene is when the whole group of the delinquents are sat together at the top of a hill looking over (or down onto) the modern, built-up part of Madrid. Meca starts fabricating a little story about a fictional family and the routine from when the man comes home from work till he goes to bed. It says a lot about how the delinquents see their relationship with, and separation from, the middle class people and the lives they lead. In contrast to La Haine, we never see them in a similar setting. When Saïd, Vinz and Hubert arrive in Paris, the focus is on them and the city of Paris is blurred out in the background separating them from the bourgeois society. Similarly to the rooftop scene, though they are high up above the 'banlieue', we hear a helicopter above suggesting the police are still watching their every move, that they are always under surveillance. 

We can see that the characters of Deprisa, Deprisa have a better control over authority than those of La Haine and they also have a better sense of freedom from the urban decay. The delinquents know their situation is problematic but they believe there are solutions; and ultimately they believe in a better life for themselves. In particular, we see this fantasizing of the future when Pablo and his girlfriend Angela are discussing what they will do with the money, once they have stolen it. Angela talks about investing in a nicer apartment in the city and Pablo discusses buying a flashy, red car. 

They don't see the suburbs of Madrid as their limit and they believe a better place exists for them, even though the ways in which they finance their way of life is not acceptable. And though they speak badly of the middle class society, they are ironically conforming to the consumerist state of mind by fantasising about these material items like nicer cars, homes and televisions, etc. The image of them looking over the city suggests they feel superior to the conformed society and they can ultimately rise above it, unlike in La Haine where they are often framed metaphorically in ways that suggest that they will always be put down in class and in society. 

We can relate this to the famous quote in La Haine which says "C’est l’histoire d’un homme qui tombe de 50 étages. Le mec, au fur et à mesure de sa chute, il se répète sans cesse pour se rassurer : « Jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici, tout va bien.» Mais l'important, c'est pas la chute. C'est l'atterrissage." The same quote is repeated later in the film and says "it's the story about a society that falls". Initially, it refers to a man that’s falling then it refers to a society that is falling; relating both man and society together in the decaying of the city. As the quote translates to "so far, so good", it suggests the characters will continue to wallow in the banlieue, until society decides otherwise ie. till one of them dies - as so happens in the ending when Vinz and a police officer go head to head with their guns, literally. The film features inserts of a ticking clock, counting the audience down to the end of the film and the end of their situation being "so far, so good".

The delinquents of Deprisa, Deprisa see their city in a slightly different way than Vinz, Saïd and Hubert as previously mentioned. The wastelands of Madrid evoke a sense of nostalgia, in particular for the characters Pablo and Meca who were born and raised there. In the scene where the group set off on a horse-back ride on the fringes of the city, they cross a busy road which takes them to a lake. We instantly notice that this place once used to be an area of nature, colour and life where now, dead plants, a murky sewage infested lake and waste reside. Meca begins reminiscing about how the lake used to be so clean he could swim in it and go fishing and how there was a house at the bottom of the lake. The way in which he describes the lake is in a complete contrast to what it resembles now. 

In the article ‘No Man’s Land: Transitional Space and Time in Carlos Saura's Deprisa, Deprisa' it states that “By connecting pure water with Meca’s childhood, with his adolescence, the lake is arguably metaphorical: it posits an analogy for children who, through the geographic exclusion which the lake now symbolises, have grown up to be neglected teenagers. (Whittaker, 2008). As a result, the places which were important and memorable to Meca's childhood have now disappeared and deteriorated which reduces further the places in which he can go and be free. On reflection, we see that Meca is clearly deep in nostalgia about his past and how the place where he used to frequent as a child is no longer what it used to be. Towards the end of his story, he shrugs it off and makes an insulting comment about the authorities in order to snap out of his nostalgic train of thought and return back to his present self. He does this so to say that he has moved on from that stage of his life, to avoid succumbing to his emotions.

Similarly to Meca, Pablo revisits an old haunt from his childhood with Angela on route to his grandmothers. He takes her to the Segovia village of Madruelo in the heart of rural Spain where he was born. They stop and get out of the car to take in the surroundings and landscape of Madruelo. Despite it being in a rural area, it too is now infested by waste and neglected like the place from Meca's childhood. It was again once a place of nature and innocence for Pablo and now a wasteland of nostalgia. Again in ‘No Man’s Land: Transitional Space and Time', it states that Deprisa, Deprisa which is “filmed in the heart of rural Spain, draws attention to how the protagonist has not only been rejected from city but from the country as well." Pablo and his friends have in fact been rejected by society and he no longer sees a place where he belongs in this city anymore, nor the country.

Another scene in Deprisa, Deprisa that contrasts particularly with the rest of the film's locations is when the group of delinquents take a trip out and wander round the grounds of the Heart of Jesus stone which is based in the geographic centre of Spain. Completely, naïvely unaware of the importance of this monument, the delinquents wander round and discuss when they committed their first crime. The group are soaked up in the inanimate and dehumanised environment surrounding it, the wasteland in which they are most used to and are blissfully unaware of being in the presence of these ruins which constructed the Spain they live in today. Meca asks two elderly passers-by what the monument signifies and what it used to be. The elderly citizens explain that the monument was destroyed by the reds during the Civil War - to which Meca responds “must’ve done something to provoke it”. This shows that the characters have little respect or understanding of their city, or country - the elderly passers-by walk away in disgust at their attitude. The characters are young and naïve and don't really understand how to behave, similarly to how Vins, Saïd and Hubert behave at the art exhibition in Paris. They are out of place in modern society.

They are too accustomed to being in the wasteland and urban decay of the city so for them any other part of the city is unfamiliar to them. They struggle with opening up to their more emotional and sensitive side as we only see this in parts. For example, when Meca briefly explains where he used to play as a child, when Pablo briefly explains where he grew up and when Angela and the group take a trip to the seaside, we see a glint of innocence and stillness in her. 

From looking at both La Haine and Deprisa, Deprisa, we can see both similarities and differences in the way the characters view their city. Those of La Haine are more despairing of their city and do not see further past crime, violence and the negatives of living in the banlieue. In Deprisa, Deprisa, the teenagers are also under the watchful eye of the police but they are more tactical and smart and believe in a better future for themselves. Vinz, Saïd and Hubert struggle to escape their reality as they are often up against the police but in contrast the Spanish delinquents are quicker, like the movie title suggests (Faster, Faster), at getting ahead of the police. 

La Haine's protagonists can’t see further past the lives they lead and only continuously talk about getting revenge and how much they hate the police but never really talk about their hopes and dreams of the future or of better prospects. The delinquents of Deprisa, Deprisa discuss a more luxurious life than their current life in the decaying suburbs and talk about leaving their life behind and getting out of their dying city for a better future. As shown in both films, cinema can exploit the realities of urban decay in cities such as Paris and Madrid, through mise-en-scène, location and characters. Like Saïd, Meca, Hubert, Pablo etc, in both films, we can see the struggles characters face to break free from their cities for they form the framework of it's decay.

Stay tuned for more film and media based essays over the next few weeks! Thanks for reading.