In 1988, 30 police were kidnapped by local separatists on an island in the French colony of New Caledonia. Counter-terrorism agent Philippe Legorjus (Kassovitz) is helicoptered in to negotiate peace.
It might not please La Haine’s director Mathieu Kassovitz to hear his impressive new film described as an anti-Argo, but that’s how it looks from here. Like Argo, Kassovitz’s Rebellion is a based-on-fact story involving imperilled Westerners in a distant land. In 1988, 30 police were kidnapped by local separatists on an island in New Caledonia. Again like Argo, the film centres on the decent man sent in to save the situation: Philippe Legorjus (played by Kassovitz), the captain of a counter-terrorism unit.
Here, the films part company. Rebellion is sober in tone, furiously polemical in outlook, and it has colonial France in its sights. Philippe realises the situation is a local botch-up rather than a world crisis, and the so-called “terrorists” panicky youngsters way out of their depth. The real foes are the French ministers and army brass, determined to pulverise the rebellion before presidential elections back home. The separatist leader is given a dignified speech, while Mitterand and Chirac are reduced to babbling idiots on TV screens.
Yet, whatever your ideological colours, the film is absorbing and plausibly told. It’s much more a political drama than an action thriller, foregrounding the work of the negotiator. The increasingly tired, dishevelled Philippe shuttles between hostile parties as the chance of a peaceful outcome, which at first looked deceptively simple, slips away. We see almost everything through Philippe’s limited perspective, which has the effect of distancing the drama, though the rebels are humanised with great eloquence.
Filmed in Polynesia, Tahiti and elsewhere, Rebellion’s locations and camerawork are superb, the latter providing elegant tricks that never jar (timeshifts, jump cuts, an opening vision of carnage played backwards). The combat scenes take up a small fraction of the film, but they’re intensely shot in cramped jungle environments, all confusion and snafus. The narrative is admirably lucid, only marred by one problem — mistimed subtitles in some sections, making following the dialogue a little irritating.
Rebellion doesnt set out to be a crowdpleaser; nor is it really a thriller, despite its subject. Rather its an absorbing political drama, eloquent and angry.