French electro-hipsters Justice recently released a new video for their track “Stress”. [hi-res video link] It lives up to the title. The video follows a gang of banlieue thugs as they go on a rampage across the city. It’s violent and uncompromising, likely to never be seen on TV on this side of the Atlantic, and, to no one’s surprise, already quite controversial. In some ways, it’s a very condensed version of La Haine [trailer].
On a superficial level, the violence is gratuitous. These thugs go around beating up bystanders, tourists, old ladies and security guards without any retribution. That’s likely why so many people have a problem with this video: they get away with it. After being subjected to this stressful ordeal the viewer is never given the karmic release they likely expected. Not only do they lack that catharsis, but by the end of it the viewer itself becomes as a victim to the thugs’ rampage.
The video works because there’s a constant tension between the actions of the characters on screen and the viewer, represented as the film crew. This is established early on when you see a hand come out a wipe the camera. From this point on you know that this isn’t some imaginary third person view, this is seen from the first person perspective of the cameraman. The characters are aware of it, though in an uneasy sort of way.
As it goes along they become more conscious of the camera. They goad it along, as though their carnage is for show.
Soon enough, the authorities come and try to take them and the camera down. You see a guard come, palm raised, at the camera. The screen goes black. A moment later, we are saved as the thugs turn on that guard and beat the shit out of him. Everyone runs. It is at this point when we become more aware of the camera crew as we see the sound guy, holding his microphone, running away alongside the thugs.
The camera crew — the viewer — has changed from a detached observer into someone complicit in the violence. They are no longer detached observers. It is no surprise that they, too, become victims to it. It’s hard to feel sympathy for them. They — we — brought it upon ourselves. In this sense it is far more reminiscent of Man Bites Dog than La Haine.
So is the violence in this video gratuitous? Yes. But that shouldn’t be seen as a celebration or glorification of it. The only people that would see it as such are those that look at it at a superficial level, seeing a bunch of hooligans beating up innocent people and nothing more. There’s more to it than just that.
It is, then, very appropriate that the video was let loose during the same week that saw the release of Grand Theft Auto IV.