Rebellion (L’Ordre et la Morale)

In Films by David Watson

In the nearly two decades since his blistering debut La Haine, directorMathieu Kassovitz has probably become more famous for his acting role as the quirky love interest of goofy, lovable stalker Audrey Tatou in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie than for films like head-scratching potboiler The Crimson Rivers, his ropey US debut Gothika or the frankly stinking $70 million flop Babylon A.D.  So it’s refreshing to see him return to form with Rebellion, his earnest, uncompromising account of a little known and shameful episode in recent French colonial relations.

In 1988, with French internal politics divided between the left and right over the Presidential elections, a group of indigenous Kanak separatists attack and seize a police station on the small French colony of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, in the process killing three policeman and taking a further twenty-six hostage.

Assigned to resolve the incident by incumbent French President Francois Mitterand, anti-terrorism expert Captain Phillipe Legorjus (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his team travel from Paris to the island to track down the separatists, defuse the situation and secure the release of the hostages through peaceful negotiations with separatist leader Alphonse (Iabe Lapacas).  However Legorjus finds his efforts increasingly frustrated by the bullying military who harass and repress the local populace, inflaming their anger.

As Legorjus slowly gains the trust of the separatists and works to find a peacefulsolution to the crisis, back home the rivalry between the left-wing Mitterand and his right-wing opponent Prime Minister Jacques Chirac intensifies.  With public opinion swaying in favour of Chirac who’s calling for a swift, brutal resolution, Legorjus finds himself in a desperate race against time to avert the inevitable tragedy…

Taut, tense and possibly his angriest, most satisfying film since La Haine, Kassovitz’s Rebellion is a searing indictment of French politics, attitudes and society.  Based on the memoirs of the real Captain Legorjus, the film is something of a labour of love for Kassovitz who worked for several years to win the trust and consent of the families of the nineteen dead Kanaks killed in the uprising.  It’s also timely given that New Caledonia is once again pushing for independence and will be the subject of referendum next year.

Boldly opening and closing with the bloody aftermath of the French raid on the separatists, a shell-shocked Legorjus numbly walking through violent scenes of carnage as French soldiers beat and summarily execute Kanak prisoners, Kassovitz’s film pulls few punches, exposing the casual racism, bureaucracy, compromises, game-playing and political expediency that will lead to bloodshed.  Given that we know from the first shot that events are going to end in tears, the focus of Rebellion instead becomes the morality of the principals, particularly the honorable, increasingly frantic, Legorjus who desperately tries to avert the tragedy he knows is coming.

While it’s overlong and lacks subtlety, Kassovitz’s Rebellion is a powerful, intelligent political drama that’s quietly furious.