27 April 2013
Matthieu Kassovitz needed Rebellion. Long known as the romantic co-lead in Amelie (2001) and the director of the sublime urban teen crime drama La Haine (1995), which gave us Vincent Cassell if for nothing else, his directorial output has been pretty patchy. And that’s an understatement.
With Rebellion he puts himself in the spotlight as a director and as an actor more than capable enough to pout and ponder when the camera is on him. It must have been irresistible to keep the focus on him all the time, but Rebellion is far from a desperate attempt at a vanity project. It is a superior war drama, the likes of which we have rarely seen since Platoon (1987).
As Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012) proved, it is still the winning formula to season a film with patriotic fervour, even when it’s not needed, in order to make it a critical and financial success. Rebellion, on the other hand, rebels (pardon the punt) against this notion and presents a staunch anti-patriotic feeling in the shape of a corrupt and highly politicised French military - think of Paths of Glory (1957) and its subtle fuck-you morality.
Based on real events, Kassovitz plays Capitaine Philippe Legorjus, the leader of the famed French anti-terrorist outfit GIGN. He is tasked to negotiate with the Kanak rebels who took hostage a number of gendarmes in New Caledonia on the eve of the French presidential election of 1988. To his dismay, the French government sent in the Army before him to intimidate the Kanak rebellion - strange, as New Caledonia is French territory. After a botched attempt at starting negotiations, he and a handful of his men also fall hostage to the Kanak guerrillas. But he convinces their charismatic leader Alphonse (Iabe Lapacas) to carry on the negotiation process between the French government and the FLNKS - the political outfit, considered terrorists by the government. However, the stakes are way higher than the lives of the hostages and Legarjus digs himself into a deeper hole as he manoeuvres between the politicians and the military.
The battle is fought on the phone lines, as Legarjus maintains a network of communication between Alphonse, Paris, the High Commission in New Caledonia, and the gung-ho Army boys. Needless to say, he fights a futile battle.
This is a smart film with little room for proselytising. Legarjus’s attempts at brokering a peace lies as much as his willingness to save his own ass (the military reminds him more than once that he fucked up big time by letting his men be taken hostage) as to protect the lives of the innocent Kanak. He is convinced, rightly so, that the Kanak “guerrillas” are way out of their depth. The line between his duty to save the men under his command and to save an innocent group of freedom fighters is often blurred, which makes Rebellion such a fantastic and fresh war drama.
It could have done with less of Kassovits staring glumly at a distance in close-up and it needed at least one more well-developed character. Alphonse comes a little close to being that balancing player in the proceedings, but he is seldom on screen. Legarjus’s men fare even less.
Despite those shortcomings (and they are not to be taken lightly), Rebellion is a vastly enjoyable war film with a high-octane climax that would make Saving Private Ryan’s opening salvo a little tame by comparison. Chances are you will this little gem, but make every effort to see it because smart and enjoyable films like these are hard to come by these days.