Mathieu Kassovitz first came to the world’s attention in 1995 when his second feature film La Haine captured the public mood and laid bare the tension and mistrust between impoverished urban youth and the French police. Angry, talented and undeniably vocal about his politics, Kassovitz seemed poised to take the film world by storm and yet twenty years later he is known primarily as an actor who dallies (somewhat successfully) in writing and directing genre films. Ten years in the making and as tense as any political thriller in recent memory, Rebellion marks Kassovitz’s return to political filmmaking… and about bloody time too!
Based upon recent historical events and impeccable in its accuracy, Rebellion follows a group of gendarmes sent to the small French colony of New Caledonia where a bunch of political activists have killed some local police and taken a bunch of hostages. Kassovitz plays the lead gendarme Philipe Legorjus who, despite being a military man, sees it as his job to negotiate a settlement and prevent any further bloodshed. However, upon arriving in New Caledonia, Legorjus soon realises that something has changed as he is now expected to operate under the direct control of a military general who has been given free reign to solve the problem at any cost. Painfully aware that the French military has little interest in negotiation, Legorjus heads out in the jungle where he finds not a bunch of armed fanatics but a group of local men who tried to take a stand and wound up getting in over their heads.
As with La Haine, Kassovitz jumps into the political elements of his narrative with real zeal and understanding. Using Legorjus as a viewpoint, Kassovitz crawls around inside the Ouvea massacre and shows not only the cowardice of the separatist politicians who failed to support their own activists but the complete moral bankruptcy of a French political class who used a real-life hostage situation as an opportunity to grandstand on the eve of a national election. However, unlike many political films that are content to bewail the system and blame impersonal forces for the ills of the world, Rebellion goes out of its way to name real-life politicians and speculate about their motives. Why did Jacques Chirac close the door on negotiations? Because he wanted to attract the votes of the French National Front and he knew that brown bodies meant votes. Why did the separatist politicians fail to support their own activists? Because they were afraid of being associated with dead police even though the plan to occupy police stations was theirs to begin with. Rebellion is a blisteringly angry film and watching it will make you angry too; if Western governments behaved this badly in 1988, what do you think it says about the people in power today?
Aside from being incredibly well researched and articulate, Rebellion is also amazingly tense as Kassovitz shows the same eye for pace and human weakness as he did with the depressingly under-rated Crimson Rivers. Initially, much of the tension comes from the fact that the government describes the rebels as a pack of bloodthirsty cannibals and demented fanatics. However, once Legorjus makes contact with the activists and learns the truth about their position, the early feeling of tension is replaced by a far more reasoned and melancholy sense of impending doom tied to the fact that nobody in the French government seems interested in preventing bloodshed. Sure, Rebellion has some beautifully directed scenes in which gendarmes crawl through dense foliage into danger but the really impressive sequences are those in which the character of Legorjus struggles to protect his men and his principles in the face of abject governmental savagery. Kassovitz plays Legorjus as a profoundly moral but ultimately flawed individual who learns that doing one’s duty and doing the right thing cannot always be reconciled. Even more impressive is the performance of Iabe Lapacas who plays the leader of the activists with a profoundly humane blend of searing anger and fateful resignation.
Rebellion is not just a wonderfully tense and admirably accurate account of a recent event in French history, it is also a timely cinematic reminder that colonialism and the institutional racism that accompanies it continue to flow through the veins of the Western body politic and that while Western governments may appear progressive and reformed, their willingness to shed blood for political ends remains unchanged since colonial times.