A Short Essay on Stress (2008) by French Duo Justice (Dir.Romain Gavras)

By Joseph Möller

From the very beginning, it is obvious that Romain Gavra’s video for Justice’s Stress takes no prisoners: opening the short clip, a low-angle tracking shot of several teenagers dressed in black leather jackets, paired with frantic synth tunes, plunges the viewer directly into a world of violence and provides a sense of the mayhem that is about to unfold. Not that it would take very long, anyway. Gavra’s video, in perfect correspondence with Justice’s hectic beats, is extremely fast-paced. The edit is fast and switches seamlessly from shaky close-ups to tracking shots to establishing shots taken from high angles. It is thanks to Gavras’ craftsmanship that the video’s aesthetic remains so authentic that it can be hard to decide whether the events depicted are real or staged – which is the main reason why Stress was discussed to heavily and remains among the most controversial videos of all time. In this essay, the reasons of its realism shall be discussed, taking into account not only the video’s aesthetic propositions, but also some of the surrounding circumstances that accompanied its creation.
When Stress was released in 2008, the preceding social upheavals were certainly not forgotten by the French’s collective consciousness. In 2005, two adolescents were accidentally electrocuted while running and hiding from the police in a power station. The event sparked a series of riots in the Banlieues surrounding Paris – traditionally areas of economic underdevelopment, poor infrastructure and high levels of poverty and crime. The Banlieues, mostly inhabited by France’s neglected ethnicity stemming from former colonies, are the French counterparts to LA’s South Central or Brooklyn’s East New York: areas which members of the established (white) middle class rarely roam and that retain the various stigmas of the Ghetto. Thus, the decision to create a music video focusing on the alleged criminal intent of juveniles residing in these areas and taking their hate and violence on such prestigious neighborhoods as the Montmartre was certainly not accidental, especially considering the amount of merchandising that accompanied the release of Stress.
As the video initiated quite some controversy, its producing label Ed Banger was certainly pleased with the hype that was created simultaneously for the Justice-related products it was selling. Repeating their marketing success of 2007 when the video for Justice’s D.A.N.C.E. was released, the company again proved to be a skilled marketer of merchandise: accompanying D.A.N.C.E., several limited edition T-Shirts featured in the music video were sold at prestigious Paris-based concept store Colette. In 2008, Justice released leather jackets and T-shirts featuring the eponymous Cross logo. The leather jackets were produced in collaboration with French label Surface 2 Air and were again sold at Colette and other hip, avant-gardist clothing stores in Paris, hanging alongside such illustrious brands like Yves Saint Laurent or Christian Dior. Clearly aimed at high-income individuals, the clothes thus formed a bridge between the alleged wilderness of the Ghetto and the relative safety of middle-class Parisian adolescents. Since the marauding youngsters in Stress are prominently sporting the Cross leather jacket, the dangerousness and unpredictability of life in the Banlieues becomes directly associated with the brands Justice, their trade mark logo Cross and, to a certain extent, Ed Banger. As a consequence, the products become highly anticipated and sought-after in Parisian middle-class environments, emitting a certain air – namely, to quote Grandmaster Flash, the exotic air of the “jungle.” Of course, the sell-out of the Ghetto image comes with a downside, and in Justice’s case, it’s the smell of racism taking the fun out of an otherwise perfect marketing stunt.
While Stress is a testimony of Gavras’ expert camera and editing skills, it is also an audiovisual proof of ignorant unscrupulousness. Evidently, for one, the marauders featured in the video are, without exception of (North) African descent, a casting choice that strongly links violence and disobedience to race and derivation. Ultimately, it postulates an identity of crime and blackness, an equation that is not only dubious but is also reminiscent of right wing demagogues that so profoundly despise the diversity of modern societies these days. Secondly, the depiction of the violence that makes its way from the Banlieues to the city of Paris and its blindsided, defenseless citizens is an exaggerated alarm that overestimates the alleged danger pouring from the poorer social strata into more bourgeois and pacified neighborhoods.

The most incriminating evidence, however, is also the video’s biggest achievement: the realism of its cinematography. Because the faux found footage is so skillfully crafted, Stress can be hard to watch. The frantic camerawork is nauseating, its shakiness corresponding perfectly with the aimless destruction. In fact, it is so real that it leaves no room for the viewer to readily perceive it as a work of art but as an actual representation of CCTV footage. Of course, art does not need to have a tag around its neck indicating its artificiality. However, given the choices of representation mentioned above, a lot of criticism concerning its racial prejudices could have been avoided – or at least, rendered less ambiguously. At any rate, Stress remains a controversial video, and a part of Justice’s image will forever be linked to the uncompromising staccato of electronic beats and distressed imagery.