Since 1995’s blistering La Haine (a sort of Never Mind the Bollocks for the diverse alienated Parisian youth of the 1990s),French writer/director MathieuKassowitz’s output has been marked by an almost obstinate deviation from the anarchistic themes of his debut. Rebellion (L’ordre et la morale) marks a return of sorts to the politically charged subject matter of La Haine. Here though, Kassowitz exchanges urban Paris for the beautiful French colony of New Caledonia (“France” but “25,000km away”) where injustice is rife and hope wears thin.
In the first few minutes of Rebellion we are treated to some sweeping shots of an island paradise, as if pilfered from a soft-drink or shampoo advertisement. Palm trees rustle in the wind, white beaches encircle atolls before sliding off into the ocean and the setting sun ignites the entire horizon. These idyllic scenes are punctuated by the hum and distant thudding of the film’s eerie soundtrack. On the ground, the wind blows and the ubiquitous rustle of vegetation seems amplified and claustrophobic. All, it seems, is not well in paradise.
Rebellion centres on the Ouvea hostage taking of 1988, in which a group of indigenous Kanak separatists held 27 French Gendarme’s hostage on the tiny island of Ouvea. Philippe, a military negotiator expertly played by Kassowitz, is sent to the island to bargain for the soldiers’ release. Back in France though, the Presidential elections are approaching and politicians scramble to impose themselves on the situation – to appear strong in the face of ‘savagery’ and ‘terrorism’. Philippe quickly sees that these men are neither terrorists nor savages, but simply “family men” stuck in a situation quickly spiralling out of their control. All of this may seem like the plot of a standard political thriller: will Philippe rescue the situation before the arrogant, bloodthirsty generals (one of the films few clichés) have their way?
Rebellion’s narrative structure, though, defies such conventions. The film is bookended by the same scene: the brutal armed assault on theseparatist camp. Philippe wanders aimlessly through the carnage, wondering ‘how this happened?’ Thereafter, the film scrolls back to “D-Day -10” the first day of Philippe’s futile mission and, as each hope of resolution dies, the film counts down a day. This circular narrative is daring and, because of this, there are times when Philippe’s constant rushing around performing thankless tasks seems pointless and loses intrigue. This, though, seems to be Rebellion’s point; it is less a film about a nightmare scenario than one about the horrifying real-life effects of political posturing and bureaucracy. At one point, Philippe is forcefully told that “Chirac will not be seen to bargain with savages because he needs the National Front votes”. Philippe is present in every scene and so, as the film progresses, his hopelessness becomes our own; “for the first time I feel useless”, he tells his wife. When “D-Day” finally arrives, there is no real shock or catharsis, just a wearying sense of inevitability.
Although unusual, Rebellion’s structure does not distance or alienate, rather it endows the film’s characters with a depth that is both profound and unique. It has been a long time, for example, since a character’s plight has affected me like that of the Kanak leader Alphonse (Iabe Lapacas), Knowing Alphonse’s fate only makes his story more painful to watch. Rebellion, while rarely enjoyable, stands as a reminder that, when armed with something important to say, few directors do so with as much vigour and venom as Kassowitz. To compare a directors work to his previous films always seems unfair (especially when that film is as outstanding and important as La Haine). The comparison is justified though because, after almost two decades spent making average horror and terrible sci-fi, Kassowitz has again made a film of real significance. Rebellion could well be his most important and best film yet.