Although director Mathieu Kassovitz has had a hard time getting his Hollywood career off the ground, with such unloved productions as Babylon A.D. and Gothika under his belt, it must not be forgotten that his career began with urban drama La Haine, one of the most powerful films to come out of France in the nineties. As the title might suggest, La Haine (aka Hatred) had an angry moral streak running through it, which Kassovitz draws on again for Rebellion – or L’Ordre Et La Morale, aka Order and Morality, as is the much better French title.
Where La Haine was set in the urban jungle of a Paris housing project, Rebellion takes to the jungle quite literally. Telling the story of a negotiator desperately trying to peacefully resolve a hostage situation in the overseas French territory of New Caledonia, Kassovitz (who stars as well as directing) directs his righteous anger at those high up in the political system and media who manipulated the situation for their gain in the upcoming Presidential elections.
Make no mistake, Rebellion is a polemic. It is based on the book by Philippe Legorjus (played by Kassovitz in the film), the man sent to New Caledonia to negotiate with the rebels who have taken over two gendarmerie stations, and the story is told exclusively from his character’s point of view. Thus, every politician is self-serving and devious, every military man bloodthirsty and despotic. The film has a point to make and does so in a heavily impassioned manner, but anyone expecting a rounded examination of what turned into a needless massacre should look elsewhere. Layers of grey in might have obfuscated the message, but could also have given it just a little more credibility. Because of how those in charge are portrayed as fairly straightforward villains, it is easy to see why the situation engendered such generalising, but as with Michael Moore’s films, there is always a lingering question about how the other side might have defended themselves.
Regardless, this is powerful stuff and the captions that end the film (informing us of the consequences of the massacre) certainly suggest that Legorjus gave an accurate account of the sort of political machinations that prevented him from doing his job and saving many lives. As a film, Kassovitz heavily channels Apocalypse Now, making several direct references in a few of his shots.
From the jungle environments to the growling soundtrack, it is steeped in the foreknowledge, courtesy of the story being told in flashback, that atrocities are the inevitable outcome. Just as Coppola’s film emphasized how lost and alien its American soldiers felt in the midst of a hostile Vietname jungle, Kassovitz gets a similar feeling of dread from seeing a man so expert at establishing control over situations gradually realising that everything has been out of his hands all along and there is nothing he can do to prevent bloodshed. At the moments when he is highest, seemingly only a step away from achieving his goal, the audience are at their lowest, knowing that his fall to Earth will be all the further.
As an actor, Kassovitz gives a compelling and naturalistic performance. His Legorjus is a man with the upmost faith in the power of dialogue to sort out any conflict, who discovers to his horror that it is the people and situations outside the conflict who are the ones who cannot be negotiated with and are the most responsible when solvable problems descend into chaos. When he realises that he has no choice but to turn his back on everything he believes in and the people he has made promises to help, it is a heartbreaking moment. His face is as implacable as ever, remaining absolutely calm no matter what latest setback is thrown at him, but in his eyes we can see an existence that has been profoundly cracked.
The bulk of the film consists of back-and-forth negotiations, with Legorjus travelling between the rebel camp (where he talks to the leader Alphonse Diannou, played by the enormously sympathetic actor Iabe Lapacas) where the hostages are being held, the military outpost in New Caledonia and the headquarters of his political masters back in France. Violence occurs only sporadically and in short, stylised bursts. A flashback to how one of the gendarmerie (police) stations was taken over is done with Legorjus literally walking through the action as his colleague tells him how it happened, an elegant storytelling decision which gets around the messy cuts between time frames that usually come with such material.
Rebellion is a terrific return to form for Kassovitz, his best film in years and one that comes from his once again opening up the same vein of bloody rage that produced La Haine. As an actor, he gives a nuanced performance as a man who realises quite how little control he really has. As a director, he contrasts the tropical beauty of the New Caledonia surroundings with the murky politics circling like vultures above the little island, waiting for new corpses to feed on. While hardly a balanced representation of a true story, it is compellingly told and a timely reminder both of what enormous talent Kassovitz has at his fingertips and how badly Hollywood has wasted him.