In 1995 Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine was deemed so culturally and politically important it was shown in the French parliament. He’s back with Rebellion, and it seems he’s found his political edge once more.
With La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz made a film that almost immediately became culturally significant – both in arts culture and political culture as a whole. That film shone a light on tensions between young French citizens and right-wing politicians in the aftermath of riots in Paris, and was considered so important that it was shown in the French parliament. Since then, Kassovitz has gone quiet directorially speaking, with nothing of any real worth, appearing in front of the camera instead in films such as Amelie, Munich and The Fifth Element. Now, with Rebellion, in which he starred, wrote and directed, Kassovitz is back – it’s been a long time coming, but it’s a phenomenal return.
Rebellion tells the true story of an altercation between dissidents in the French colony of New Caledonia and stationed French gendarmerie, whose base they storm and whom they take hostage. Captain Philippe Legorjus, played brilliantly by Kassovitz, is sent in as a negotiator to find out the aims of said dissidents and free the hostages, without spilling any blood.
The film is, for all intents and purposes, a war film, albeit one without a great deal of combat action – not that the opening scene would prepare you for that. The film starts on a chaotic, bloody mess of bodies and gunfire, played in reverse and narrated by Philippe – he then takes us back 10 days to the beginning of the trouble, setting up the film as a kind of countdown, much like the repeated motif of the ticking clock in La Haine. In this ten day period there is very little fighting whatsoever, the film instead displaying the bureaucracy of war, the political ramifications of each eventuality, made all the more serious by the fact that a French election is on the horizon. Philippe is right in the middle of this storm, a man motivated by doing the right thing, by honouring his profession. He is a negotiator, he works in dialogue and can see both sides of the argument. He wants his men released unharmed, but wants to help the separatists who feel their culture is being stripped away by French rule. Indeed, those in power are not portrayed sympathetically. Whilst the gendarmerie, paramilitaries essentially, are generally quite well meaning, an early scene shows the army to be violent, racist and overwhelmingly aggressive. Kassovitz isn’t pulling any punches with representation, this is a film with a point to make, and it makes it well.
What Rebellion does so brilliantly is articulate the chaos of conflict and inevitability of bloodshed. The countdown structure is a stroke of genius in this regard, making you engage with Philippe’s attempts at peacekeeping and, indeed, at one point see a light at the end of the tunnel, but at the same time keeping you constantly aware that his efforts are in vain. This is the point that I think the film is trying to make. Those fighting wars, no matter what side they are on, can have the most noble, honourable and decent intentions in the world. However, wars aren’t fought by those on the ground. Those on the ground are merely political pawns, and war is a powerful political tool, and if blood needs to be spilled for a political reason – say, to get a section of voters on side in the wake of an election – than blood will be spilled, and damn the consequences.
The timing of this film is particularly interesting, given the furore surrounding Zero Dark Thirty and its apparent heroification of people who use torture. There’s a telling line in Rebellion which says something to the effect of: “We call them terrorists because it dehumanizes them, which makes violence more acceptable”. That line could have been directed straight at Kathryn Bigelow. It’s also impossible to shake the feeling that you’ve seen much of the film before. The thick, forest setting isn’t the only reminder of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent Apocalypse Now, with many visual and cinematic references peppering the film’s 2 hour running time. That film worked as a pointed critique of America’s involvement in Vietnam, Rebellion seems to be suggesting that we’ve come no further.
There aren’t many genuinely political filmmakers out there, Ken Loach being the only obvious example I can think of at this point. Mathieu Kassovitz may not be as prolific as Loach, and try as you might I doubt you’ll find any political comment in Gothika, but when he has a point to make, he makes that point, and not at the expense of the film either. Rebellion is a brilliantly made, thrilling, superbly written indictment on how those in power couldn’t care less about those who do their bidding, and right now, that’s a pretty important message to be sending out.