After a couple of serious Hollywood misfires in the form of Gothika and Babylon A.D., Matthieu Kassovitz’s first French language film in over a decade is a tense, troubling and highly politicized return to form. Set during a guerrilla uprising in the French colony of New Caledonia that took place the late nineteen eighties, Rebellion [L’orde et la morale] stars Kassovitz himself as an experienced hostage negotiator and Special Forces commander, whose unit is sent from Paris to help recover personal taken prisoner by the rebels. But with a French Presidential Election looming, it soon becomes clear that the government is more interested in a speedy end to proceedings than a bloodless one. Juxtaposing questions of duty and morality against a scathing depiction of bureaucracy and political game-playing, Rebellion walks the line between earnestness and self-righteousness, and in doing so unseats The Hurt Locker as the most affecting war drama of the century so far.
In the early hours of the morning, Captain Philippe Legorjus (Kassovitz) of the GIGN (an anti-terrorist and hostage recovery Special Forces unit) receives an order to scramble his team for immediate assignment. They’re given details in the air: a group of freedom fighters on the Pacific Island of New Caledonia have stormed a police station and taken several people hostage. By the time they land, aggressive French army troops have exacerbated matters, driving relations with the Kanack natives to a breaking point and making Legorjus’ job of facilitating communication that much trickier to accomplish. His superiors in France provide even less help; indeed, with the election mere days away, the situation becomes a hot-button issue that the presiding government is all too happy to exploit.
Kassovitz, who many will recognise from his acting roles in the likes of Munich and Amelie, has not been this good as a writer/director since his debut, 1995’s Palm D’Or winning La Haine. The threat of violence and the aggravation of political corruption leave a pit in ones stomach that grows with every scene, while an onscreen counter ticks backwards, edging ever to an ominous “D-Day” hinted at in a bleak and disorienting prologue. Directorial flourishes like this Memento-esque opening, or a long, spinning take that recounts the way the rebel takeover unfolded, reveal a director released from the shackles of American studio interference. Images of poor Kanacks strike pointed contrast against the luxurious offices of government officials. It’s not subtle, but subtly isn’t what Kassovitz is aiming for.
Indeed, the writer/director is not afraid to wear any of his opinions on his sleeve. New Caledonia’s interior minister Bernard Pons (Daniel Martin) is depicted as snivelling and cowardly, while back in France, Presidential incumbent Francois Mitterrand and challenger Jacques Chirac attempt to win votes with warmongering in the media; the same media who depict the dissidents as uneducated, bloodthirsty savages. In reality, rebel leader Alphonse Dianou (Iabe Lapacas) wants a peaceful resolution as badly as Legorjus does. But he too is beholden to his masters, and the politburo he serves soon prove to be just as willing as the French to trade lives for political cache.
But while the social critiquing is searing, Kassovitz achieves emotional resonance – and avoids sanctimony – through his depiction of the humans involved. His portrayal of the pricipled Legorjus, torn between his duty as a soldier and his beliefs as an individual, is impecable and relatable. Across from him, the Kanack rebels, played largely by non-actors, are just as convincing, and it doesn’t take long before we find ourselves rooting for this army of “fathers and fishermen.” Of course history – and the opening scene – promises only tragedy. Rebellion’s one battle sequence depicts warfare not as exciting, but rather confusing, disorganised, scary and pointless. In that scene, as throughout the rest of this powerful film, the sense of frustration and shattering disillusionment is shared, by viewer and character alike.