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    Social Class Struggles in French Films Essay

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    In 1962, “the deliberate destroyer of cinema,” (Sontag 150) Jean-Luc Godard, released one of his most acclaimed and poetic films entitled Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live).

    This is one of the most important films in French cinema history, and the techniques Godard used ushered in the New Wave of French film. Winning Mathieu Kassovitz Best Director at the ’95 Cannes Film Festival and going on to be an instant success across France, La Haine remains one of the most controversial French films ever made. The societal problems in France which caused civil unrest in the film are still very relevant today. Chaos, directed by Coline Serreua, was awarded both the People’s Choice and Critic’s Choice award at the ‘02 Norwegian International Film Festival, and was also nominated for best film.

    (Unifrance. org) Although these directors from different eras of film have different cinematic styles and narratives, these three groundbreaking movies share in common the theme of a personal journey through the social class struggles of France. Socioeconomic class struggles have been a major theme in all facets of French art for a very long time, and these films express this theme in interesting ways. Vivre Sa Vie is, as Godard himself stated, “a film in twelve scenes,” each a glimpse into the life of a woman along her journey into a career of prostitution and its consequences.

    It is “one of Godard’s most heartbreaking films, about the social situation of women and their struggles in an unsympathetic world one of the most influential films of the French New Wave. ”(ClassicArtFilms. om) In Vivre Sa Vie, Godard used silent film style written narration and creative camera shots that can at times make it feel as though the viewer is an actual observer in the room during scenes. The scenes in the movie depict specific philosophical conversations which were likely important turning points in the character Nana’s life. Godard used an observational documentary film-making style known as Cinema Verite with his own personal twist; nothing is directly explained and only brief windows into Nana’s life are observed.

    Godard’s use of improvised shots and series of scenes in a narrative have become known as “Godard’s style,” and his influence on directors everywhere helped the film industry of that time transition into a more modern approach. (article) The camera movement in Vivre Sa Vie convinces the viewer that we are not just watching a movie, but watching Nana. When Nana is working in the record store the camera pans back and forth and even turns when she looks out the window. When she is sitting at the bar the camera pans again from left to right, and again when she is on the street when she notices the prostitutes. The camera is not expressing a style, but a way people look at other people.

    More importantly, the way the viewer would perceive Nana if they were in the room for the conversation. She is a beautiful woman who left her husband and young child to start an acting career, and the film never explains why. One is left to consider what social class she was in before the view into her life offered by the film begins. Things apparently do not go well for a woman alone in French society, as before long Nana is evicted from her apartment, and is eventually being questioned by the police about an event involving “stolen” money.

    Nana uses men for drinks, cigarettes, and eventually descends into the life of a prostitute. Vivre Sa Vie illustrates perfectly the struggle Nana endures as a woman alone, transitioning from middle-class housewife into a lower-class prostitute because she cannot make a living by herself doing anything else. La Haine is a filmic narrative that takes place over a 24 hour period during a troubled time in Paris, focusing on three boys that live in a “housing estate” (French projects). The movie is very controversial, emphasizing the social unrest caused by class division and racism. Vinz is a poor, white, Jewish boy who lives in a small apartment with his grandmother.

    Hubert, a young black man and the son of an immigrant, lives with his mother and sister and is the man of the household, responsible for the bills. Said is an Arab boy who is poor but is protected by his older brother, who seems to be a local gang leader. Vinz, Hubert, and Said spend their day observing and discussing the aftermath of a riot that occurred the night before, sparked by social class tensions and police brutality. There is an enormous amount of anger felt toward the police shared by nearly every young man the boys interact with in the film, and the reaction different characters get from the police speaks volumes about racism without actually directly saying anything.

    It is interesting how the police tolerate Vinz’s aggressive attitude to some extent, but will arrest Said or Hubert at the drop of a dime. Vinz seems to be able to get away with much more than his friends just because he is white. At the same time because he is white he feels as though he needs to do something more than his friends to earn respect in the street such as be put in jail or kill a policeman. By the end of the movie, Hubert, the wisest of the protagonists, has forcibly taught Vinz that he does not really want to kill anyone.

    During the film the protagonists take two trips, one to a hospital to visit their friend who is in a coma due to a beating by police, and another into the city to find a man who owes Said a small sum of money. The camera movement used in La Haine makes the film visually exciting during action scenes and develops tension during slower dialogue scenes. This is achieved by the combination of a highly mobile camera and editing techniques that allow the moving camera to both give a detailed view of the environment and zooming close-ups of character’s facial expressions. For example, when Vinz continually creates confrontations that his friends end up paying for, there is always a moment afterward when it can clearly be seen on his face that he feels badly and the viewer thinks that perhaps he has learned a lesson this time. Well-timed close-ups of facial expressions are very effectively used throughout La Haine to say a lot without dialogue.

    Panning and close-ups are not the only camera techniques used to good effect. At one point, Hubert is in his room rolling hash and smoking it and music is then added into the scene with the onset of the drug. The jump cuts that are used in editing this scene indicate that time is passing, and this is how Hubert spends his spare time. This is also how the viewer finds out what Hubert is up to when throughout the film his friends are occasionally waiting while he talks with random people alone for a moment and they hand him cash. He is making the money to pay his family’s bills selling hash, something he is forced to do because the gym he owned was burned down in the riot. Without smooth camera movements, sound, and editing techniques it would be difficult feel the tension between police and the lower class youth and to notice the details in their homes, alley ways, roof tops, and streets that help the viewer to understand the environment in which these boys live, and to accurately display the personal struggles that each boy experiences within their social class.

    The camera movements and even more so the sound editing used by director Coline Serreua in Chaos set an appropriate mood throughout the entire movie. The beginning scene explodes with very upbeat and intense music that captures the viewer’s attention immediately. The fast pace makes viewers feel anxious, and the scene cuts immediately from a car in the rain to a woman screaming for her life. The music stops, and cuts to the next scene where the viewer is left in suspense. The camera panning used in the scene where Malika goes into cardiac arrest is very fast and smooth and convinces the audience how dramatic of an event that was. The zoom in on Malika’s face shows the viewer the fear she feels, and the mixing used to enhance the sounds of the machines in the hospital room along with the fast music does a great job of making the audience experience some of her anxiety.

    The audio mixing was well done throughout Chaos, especially when used to produce an increased heart rate in the audience to make scenes more intense. When Helene is in the waiting the room the music sounds slow, sad, and final, but as soon as the pimps enter to visit Malika, the music gets faster and more suspenseful. Helene and Paul get ready for their day frantically in a hurry with fast music playing, and even happy, fun, energetic music is playing when the girlfriends are home with no men. Every scene contains a specific sound that connects the subject to the action in the scene. In scenes where Malika is either running away or someone is looking for her, in the background is always the fast, upbeat music that fills the energy of the movie with automatic suspense. Malika’s transformative personal journey from a young, lower class immigrant girl into a prostitute on the streets of Paris, and eventually into a smart, independent woman who escapes from her abusers is punctuated throughout with very appropriate audio mixing.

    In each movie, a character is dealing with the everyday struggle of living in a society with issues concerning racism, class division, and complex social rules and customs. Vivre Sa Vie begins filming Nana’s journey after she leaves her family to pursue an acting career. Nana is very vague about her plans for the future and has issues communicating her thoughts and feelings to anyone who listens. Nana is evicted from her apartment, and is thrown into desperation as she begins walking the streets of Paris. The record store where she is employed does not provide enough salary to keep a roof over her head, and her struggle to survive in the middle class begins as she eventually descends into a career in prostitution.

    It is sad to imagine that a young woman at that time could not afford to live on her own, and how many women resorted to prostitution in order to get by in society because of the pressures of class division, gender, and traditional rules and customs. Unfortunately, Nana falls victim to the system and her life of smoking and getting by comes to an abrupt end after she falls in love with a pimp who tries to sell her. The confrontation between the two pimps results in Nana’s death, and her struggle to survive ends sadly for her. In La Haine the three boys all deal with personal journeys throughout the day in which the film takes place. Hubert, an African American who aspires to become a professional boxer, who loses his gym in the riot, descends into his old habits of smoking marijuana, wasting time on the streets, and eventually is forced at the climatic end of the film to make the decision of killing the officer who accidentally killed Vinz.

    Hubert is forced into his position because of the decisions he has made while trying to live life in the lower class. He desires to leave the projects, but is left with few options due to the racism, and class division he is subjected to in society. Vinz, the poor, white, Jewish boy, struggles the most to live in his social class. Vinz feels pressure around the thugs on the street to maintain a hard attitude, and live up to the social expectations of the delinquents that surround him. In one scene while he and Hubert are on the roof, Vinz mentions that he would rather do time in prison than community service, and it is because he feels obligated to have that bad reputation. On the other hand, Vinz is treated noticeably better by police because he is white.

    Said comes from the same bad side of town, but he has been more or less sheltered by his older brother, a local gang leader. When a tense situation develops between police and local hoodlums on the rooftop, Said is dismissed from the scene by his brother, who is clearly in charge of everyone from their side of town. There is actually a very expressive cut from Said and his friends leaving the rooftop to the boys sitting in a playground looking a bit dejected with some much younger boys playing nearby. It is as though Said and his friends have been dismissed to the “kid’s table. ” By the end of La Haine, Said has been a part of some pretty heavy events, and it can be said that perhaps his personal journey is to manhood. In Chaos, the brilliant Malika’s personal journey begins when she discovers that her father is selling her, and she runs away to avoid a life as an uneducated housewife returning to her home country of Algeria.

    When she has difficulty finding food and shelter, a supposedly nice man takes her in, but eventually locks her in a room where she is beaten, raped, and drugged. When the man finally lets her out she is addicted to heroin, and falls into the life of a lower class prostitute in order to meet the demands of her new life. When Malika finally sobers up, she manipulates an older upper class rich man into leaving her all of his fortune after he dies. The pimps, unaware of her real name, eventually find out that she has this fortune hidden somewhere and begin to interrogate her in order to get a cut. The men beat her, and she is admitted into the hospital where she goes into cardiac arrest and eventually a coma. When she awakens, she tells Helene her story and her desire to seek revenge on the men who ruined her life.

    Malika uses not only her skills as a prostitute, but her wits to exact that revenge and reclaim her life. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, Mathieu Kassovit’s La Haine, and Coline Serreua’s Chaos, the directors each did an excellent job telling a tale which was in each case improved drastically through their individual styles of cinematography. Each movie is a particularly good example of the film techniques for which their directors have become well-known. They are powerful tales of personal journeys through the hardships of the socioeconomic class struggle which continues in France to this day. Most especially in the case of La Haine, which is still so relevant today that it has been brought up by politicians a decade after its release in relation to civil unrest still occurring in urban France.

    Politicians seemed to try to blame the film for helping to incite rioting and skirmishes with police, but there was a lesson to be learned by the film if the suits were paying attention. As Hubert says to Vinz, “la haine attire la haine,” Hatred breeds hatred!


    Abbot, Anita. La Haine. Harlow: Longman, 2000. Web. 19 Aug.

    2014. “Chaos (2001). ” – UniFrance Films. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.

    Lanzoni, Re?mi Fournier. French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2002. Print.

    “Mathieu Kassovitz: La Haine. ” Mathieu Kassovitz: La Haine. University of Sunderland, 22 May 1998. Web. 19 Aug.

    2014. Staff, Matthew. “Classic Art Films: Vivre Sa Vie. ” Classic Art Films. 27 Aug. 2012.

    Web. 19 Aug. 2014.

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