Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 29, 2012 4:43 pm 
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Kassovitz's smart actioner

Mathieu Kassovitz's Rebellion, which he directs and stars in, is about the revolt and hostage-taking that occurred in 1988 on the tiny Pacific island of Ouvea in New Caledonia that was put down by its French rulers. This is an intense action film about shocking historical events -- one that effectively goes beyond the action format to show how politics trumps military and diplomatic considerations. Kassovitz has to that extent made a war movie for smart people. and this isn't a crude polemical piece but a deftly executed film with high production values full of elaborate set pieces and showing a superb and natural sense of place. Note however the limitations of personal POV: this is the arguably one-sided account of one man, a main player (as he saw it anyway) and based on his published memoir of events. The good man surrounded by military puppets is a well-told tale that provokes thought -- and one of the best new political films from the French in some time as well as a great leap forward for Kassovitz as a filmmaker -- even if it is not a work of sublime complexity.

We begin with the violent finale. Then we go back to the beginning, from the narrator's point of view when GIGN (French national police intervention group) Captain Philippe Legorjus was sent out to New Caledonia with his personal team because locals who rebelled independently (separate from the French-branded "terrorist" independence insurgents, the FNLKS -- Le Front de libération nationale kanak et socialiste) -- had taken some hostages in two places and killed a few people in the process. Negotiation in such crises is Legorjus' job, and he is sent the 23,000 kilometers with his own team. As he sees it since New Caledonia is French territory the rebels are French, and should be treated with the respect accorded French citizens. The action is limited and he has no doubt -- this remains true to the bitter end -- that it can successfully be contained by negotiation.

But it's 1988 -- in the middle of the 12-year socialist presidency of François Mitterand when opposition from the right is virulent. An election is coming very soon. Right-wing PM Jacques Chirac leads a conservative cabinet. The Ouvea revolt and hostage-taking becomes a tool of their conflict. Both sides must take a strong position on it. And this will be fatal for Legorjus' negotiations.

Kassovitz's film shows excerpts from a debate between Mitterand and Chirac that took place in the middle of the events. The two politicians take opposing views, but the film overlaps their remarks after a while depicting them as merely a political blah-blah-blah. The point is that the issue has to be resolved before the election and to do that, negotiating would take too long. Politics intervenes and negotiating is doomed. He doesn't quite know it yet, though Legorjus and his team arrive to find the French army already deployed in alarming numbers, for a tiny rebellion (ten to one, anyway): heavily armed intervention by special assault troops is already a foregone conclusion.

It's a tribute to Kassovitz's well-executed film that it tells a complicated step-by-step story over a ten-day period with great clarity and including action on many levels. And this involves meetings with the main leader, the hostages, and many communications back and forth by Captain Legorjus with the local military in charge, the government minister sent to New Caledonia, the general to whom he must report, and CIGN government liaison in Paris. He also meets with the leader of the insurgent Kanaks FLNKS. The leader of the rebel hostage-takers, Alphonse Dianou (Iabe Lapacas) is depected perhaps as too gentle and sweet to be true. But you have to grant that Kassovitz is making a smart person's action movie but still an action movie, and this is not a mini-series: he turns in the whole story in a fast-moving 135 minutes, so there is come simplification. The complexities of the New Caledonian independence moviement are left aside. A newcomer to the topic might think what had gone on for a century had just arrived last year.

Advocates of the government or even of the CIGN, who might wish to argue they acted correctly and not simply under pressure are not so pleased with Kassovitz's anti-colonialist analysis, but the basic principle is a universal one. Issues are crudely resolved to satisfy the needs of an election. White soldiers quelling a non-white rebellion 23,000 kilometers from home are not likely to be gentle. They tortured. They massacred. Captain Philippe Legorjus fought a desperate race against time to carry out negotiations before the attack and almost got killed doing it, but -- spoiler alert! -- in the end (it's where the movie begins) he didn't get to do the job he had been trained to do. As Legorjus, Kassovitz has that same neutral, easy-to-identify-with quality ha had in his iconic early role as the young con man in Jacques Audiard's early A Self Made Hero/Un héros très discret. Other good cast members: Malik Zidi as JP Perrot as Legorjus' second in command; Alexandre Steiger as Jean Bianconi, a local negotiator; Sylvie Testud as Legorjus' wife; and a host of Kanak people and Frenchmen who make the scenes come alive and look right.

Rebellion is a misnomer. The French title is L'ordere et la morale, Order and Morality, an ironic tag that leaves us with a tonic dose of frustration instead of the usual catharsis. This is Kassovitz's most significant directorial effort since his important 1995 film about class in France, Hate (La Haine), and this time he is working with a bigger concept and a bigger budget and project.

Rebellion is a film that debuted at Cannes and also showed at other festivals, including Toronto and London. It opened in Paris November 16, 2011 to very good, if not great, reviews (Allociné 3.2); some critics understandably see the film as fine, but flawed; perhaps some did not see how much is done well here, but they did see that Kassovitz produced a creditable effort after serious missteps and the entertainingly lurid The Crimson Rivers. Rebellion was also included in the Film Society of Lincoln Center's series, Film Comment Selects, where it was screened for this review (Feb. 29, 2012).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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