Public restrooms are one of the all-time great movie settings, to the point where I could conceivably do a year’s worth of this column using such scenes exclusively. There’s the commode story from Reservoir Dogs, Renton diving into the toilet in Trainspotting, Jerry Maguire begging a buck-naked Rod Tidwell to “help me help you,” the sink-straddling bit in Bridesmaids. (Surely a classic for many folks, though not for me.) On and on. (Not many from classic Hollywood, though, for obvious reasons; Psycho is often cited as the first major motion picture ever to show the throne.) Part of what makes it such an effective location is the presence of the stalls—hiding place, impromptu office, nexus of vulnerability. Unless you’re paranoid enough to check them all beforehand, you can never have a conversation in a john without potentially being overheard by somebody you don’t even know is in the room, a liability that’s kick-started many a plot. Indeed, checking for feet underneath stalls is a nearly foolproof suspense generator, as is the routine where the villain kicks in each door, one by one, as the hero huddles in the furthermost stink-coffin.
One of my favorite unexpected stall appearances occurs in the middle of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, a blistering, style-crazy portrait of three French teens (Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, and Saïd Taghmaoui) roaming the banlieue in the wake of an act of police violence. Cassel finds a cop’s gun at the site of the riot, and threatens to kill a policeman if his group’s buddy, who’s in the hospital, dies of his injuries. That’s the ostensible subject of this bathroom scene, but the argument gets hijacked halfway through by a short, elderly man who launches into a lengthy personal anecdote for no apparent reason. It’s both the funniest and the most bizarre interlude in a movie that mostly vacillates between incendiary and lackadaisical, and it’s the kind of thing that seems as if it could only happen in a public restroom.
What’s most immediately striking about the scene, which begins in medias res (we don’t see the guys enter the restroom), is the unusual composition of its first shot—typical of Kassovitz’s flashy technique in the film. At first, it looks like split-screen, as if each of the three characters is in a separate location. Taghmaoui, in the middle, is on the phone, which only strengthens that impression, as phone calls are a split-screen mainstay. What we’re actually seeing is a mirror shot, but even once that’s clear, it’s not necessarily obvious which actors are reflections and which aren’t. Only when Kassovitz cuts to a wider angle can we finally see that Cassel and Taghmaoui were previously in the mirror, with Koundé “live” behind them. This wider angle also has the effect of reversing Cassel and Koundé’s positions relative to Taghmaoui, though the previous configuration is still visible in the mirror. And it adds another reflection of Cassel in a tiny mirror behind him. It’s all extremely disorienting—which is surely by design, given that the guys are about to be disoriented themselves, by a wizened dude brandishing a non sequitur.
At the time of La Haine’s release, I recall a Haitian-born friend of mine who speaks fluent French telling me that the film’s dialogue employs heavy slang in a way that the English subtitles didn’t even attempt to convey. That still seems to be true of the subtitles on the recent Criterion release. My own French is negligible (several years of classes in high school and college), but I can understand enough to recognize that Taghmaoui’s Yoo-hoo joke originally referenced the fact that Koundé is black—he says something to the effect of “you’re already chocolate.” And in general, you can just hear that they’re saying much more than the subtitles convey. I did think this time to look up the names they mention: Malik Oussekine was a French-Algerian student killed by police in 1986 (a decade before this film was made), so Cassel is noting that having a gun in an earlier confrontation prevented him from being another victim. And Bernard Tapie is a famous French businessman, best known in my circles for having recently made a failed effort to purchase Full Tilt Poker after the U.S. Department Of Justice shut it down; “half Moses, half Donald Trump” would probably be the American equivalent of Taghmaoui’s sarcastic remark.
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After a couple minutes’ worth of impassioned bickering, a stall door suddenly opens, and… Well, I guess technically speaking, he isn’t a dwarf, but an alarmingly short man emerges and instantly launches into a speech, the way some people do when they clearly don’t care whether anyone’s actually listening. But what’s funny is that the guys do listen. At first, they radiate consternation in waves, but by the middle of the Grunwalski story—which really is a compelling little tale, in its way—Cassel and Koundé, at least (Taghmaoui is back on the phone), are a completely captive audience, looking at the dude intently, visibly eager to find out what happens next. Joke’s on them, of course, because it’s essentially a shaggy-dog story, or at least one devoid of the expected punchline. Grunwalski makes a strategic error in crapping distance from the train, gets into a situation that sounds right out of a Buster Keaton movie, and then, the old guy finally reveals when prodded, winds up simply freezing to death in the steppes. Cheery.
“Why’d he tell us all that?” Taghmaoui asks as the man politely takes his leave. Because we know we’re watching a movie, and are aware that filmmakers don’t usually devote this much time to irrelevant babble, it’s natural to assume that there’s a moral to be discerned. And there probably is. It’s not clear whether the old man overheard the boys’ conversation about whether violence against the police is justified if their buddy dies, and if so, whether he intended this anecdote as commentary or rebuttal. But even if not—and I’m personally partial to the idea that he was paying no attention, and just enjoys telling that story to total strangers who cross his path—one doesn’t have to work too hard to ferret out the thematic significance of some poor schmuck who perishes because he allows himself to get needled into doing something stupid. And yet somehow this scene doesn’t have the didactic feel of an Author’s Message, nor does it yank viewers out of the movie’s world by indulging in a writerly monologue. Its function is unmistakable, but the execution is so playful and weirdly offhanded that it seems to fit Kassovitz’s deliberately skewed vision of the Paris banlieue. Or maybe it’s just that all rules are null and void within the confines of a men’s room.