Dir. Mathieu Kassovitz. Starring Vincent Cassel, Hubert Kounde, Said Taghmaoui
An old man pops out of a bathroom stall after Vinz (Cassel), Hubert (Kounde), and Said (Taghmaoui) have been having a fairly incriminating conversation. All of their conversations, to be fair, are incriminating in one way or another, but in this one they reference Vinz’s burgeoning desire to shoot a cop. They hear before they see; the voice from inside opines that nothing beats a good dump before walking out. He is a tiny little man, with a shiny head and a bushy mustache. Vinz and Said especially have a tendency to go off the handle at the slightest provocation, but something about this fellow shocks them into a rare state of silence; I was reminded of a passage from A Prayer for Owen Meany in which John realizes that his wild cousins would no more railroad Owen into something awful than a herd of cattle would charge a cat. The little man washes his hands and tells them a story about a fellow he knew as a young man called Grunwalski. He and Grunwalski were both being sent to Siberia by train, along with some other unfortunates. When everyone else essentially squatted together, Grunwalski, a modest type, went off into the bushes; however, Grunwalski did not wager for what would happen if the train left while he was indulging his shyness. The old man sees the humor in the story in his wheezy sort of way. Grunwalski runs for the train, but he hasn’t had time to pull his pants up. When a hand is outstretched for him, Grunwalski has to pull up his pants, but of course when he has his pants up he cannot get on the train anyway. All three of the young folks seem confused by the story; predictably, Said is the most vocally puzzled. “Why’d he tell us that?” he asks. Later on, it will turn out that he’s not the only one; while smoking a joint, Hubert and Vinz return to the story with their own amusingly addled interpretations. “Why’d he tell us that?” is a great question. Personally, I just assumed the little old man was drunk. As viewers, though, it seems fairly clear why he’d tell them that. Sometimes you have to choose what you want: do you want to get on the train or do you want to keep your pants? Do you want to carve out a life for yourself or do you want to seethe with rage against the cops? Do you want to lay low to stay safe or take risks to feel big? Grunwalski, the little man reports, froze to death.
Whether or not Vinz, Said, and Hubert are emblematic of the angry young men of the banlieues two decades past I couldn’t say. But their characters ring true insofar as they represent the impoverished strains of the urban poor. Vinz and Said find solace in posturing. Said likes to think of himself as a hustler, someone who has connections all over the city, a debonair ladykiller. Naturally he gets a bad haircut from Vinz, and naturally he doesn’t have any money. He and his friends go into Paris to try to collect from a friend nicknamed “Asterix” (Francois Leventhal), which, once again, ends badly. Asterix appears to be into playing a game of Russian roulette, although it turns out that he’s fooling around; he’s palmed the bullets. But Vinz does not like the suggestion that he should play next, and so he pulls out his stolen gun as Said tries to hold back Asterix and Hubert Vinz. How much money did Asterix owe you? one of them asks Said later. Five hundred francs, Said says. You nearly got us killed over five hundred francs? (It’s a sum of maybe $120 today.) It’s the principle of the thing, Said says.
Vinz fancies himself the baddest man on the mean streets, a belief amplified by the handgun he carries around with him which originally belonged to a police officer. (The officer lost it in a riot; Vinz appears to have found it without having to work very hard for it.) He tries to psych himself up in the mirror with a “You talkin’ to me?” routine. He refuses to shake a police officer’s hand on general principle, even though this cop has just gotten Said out of jail. He threatens to kill a police officer, any police officer, if their friend Abdel dies after having been badly hurt by cops during the riot. He looks for ways to take offense, constantly argues with Said and Hubert in particular, sulks, daydreams. There’s a cow running around during and after the riots that only he sees. He chases off a news crew that has come in to interview people who might have been rioting. Vinz is taken with the idea of shooting a police officer; he has a pretty strong fantasy about doing so after Abdel finally kicks the bucket, although he doesn’t make good. He even pulls his gun on one while the cops are crashing into the banlieue, but Hubert defuses that situation with his fist rather than allowing Vinz to make a fatal mistake for his ego’s sake. Vinz will gloat about the situation to Said shortly afterward, emphasizing how afraid the cop was when Vinz pulled out his handgun, giving Hubert credit for laying the officer low but also phrasing it as “we” punched him.
Hubert has his little comeuppance for Vinz later on, after the three of them have captured a skinhead (Kassovitz). He’s been trying to dissuade his hotheaded friend from shooting a police officer for the entire day. What do you think that will do? he asks. You’re one guy, that’s one cop. Who do you think you’ll help? Don’t you know there are some decent cops out there? But the skinhead is different. Kassovitz loves a good close-up, and this one gives us Vinz’s increasingly worried face and every one of Hubert’s teeth. Shooting cops is one thing, he leers, but skinheads? Man, kill them all. He goads and taunts Vinz, applying the pressure until Vinz finally demurs. It’s a strong scene, one that is echoed a little later on when Vinz tries one last time to convince his friends that the death of Abdel affects all of them. He shouts to their backs:
Vinz: I know who I am and where I come from!
Voice: So go home and shut up!
Vinz has placed his whole sense of self in relation to his neighborhood. He didn’t finish school, has no demonstrable skills, is indifferent about his family. But he is nourished by this immensely sexy idea of being part of the banlieue. It’s the only thing that seems to anchor him to anything at all; in a vulnerable moment, as far as the boys seem willing to engage in those, Vinz tells Hubert that he feels like “an ant in intergalactic space.” He’s hardly unsympathetic, even in the midst of his most violent fantasies. “I know where I am and where I come from” is an empty statement, one that sounds as good as “I’ll waste you for free” (to recall a turn of phrase that Said gushes over early in the movie) but which is basically inert. It’s no surprise that when he’s yelling that at six in the morning on a quiet street, someone with an open window hits him with that hilarious rejoinder. Like the old man, the seeds of “Make a useful decision” are implied, albeit a little more roughly. In a conversation early on, Vinz looks at prison as an opportunity to bulk up a little and get some time to himself as opposed to, well, prison. Having only a single set of experiences in a single place has robbed him of the chance to think bigger; almost certainly it’s fear of the unknown that drives him to react so grandiosely to any stimulus, and then he must double down and act like he’s the wild card in the room.
Hubert has a much stronger grasp on what the outside world is like than either Said or Vinz, and so his dreams are accordingly bigger. His mother seems fairly sure that her son won’t pull away; her response to Hubert’s dream to get out of the banlieue is that if he passes a grocery story, he should pick up some lettuce for her. If Said or Vinz have jobs, we don’t hear about them. Before the riots, Hubert owned a gym which has since been torched pretty good; Said is fascinated by the car that is in the gym now, even though the doors don’t open wide enough to admit in the first place. When their cop friend says that he could probably swing a grant Hubert’s way to rebuild the gym, Hubert politely refuses. It used to be, he said, that the kids would listen to you. Now the kids don’t listen to anyone. More interesting than his responsible nature or his belief in being cautious whenever possible is his personal warmth. Said is funny and Vinz is electric, but only Hubert seems like someone who might be called “affectionate” at some point in his life. And so it has to be that after Vinz accidentally gets killed by a police officer in a Notre Dame jacket that Hubert, who’s taken the gun from Vinz after Vinz realizes he doesn’t have the sand to shoot down another human being, almost certainly opens fire on that cop. We don’t see the shots – we see Said’s horrified face as well as a flash of white light, and we hear the sound, of course – but it seems hard to believe that Hubert would pull a gun on a police officer and not shoot him. Vinz might have done that. But Hubert knows that there’s a certain point where threats must be carried out; he would never take aim without being ready to fire.