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French Cinema

Rebellion (L’ordre et la morale, France 2011)

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

One of the best films to be released in the UK in 2013 looks like being one of the least seen. That’s a shame. If you are one of what I imagine to be many cinephiles disappointed that Mathieu Kassovitz had seemed unable to make another film as powerful as La haine, here is proof to the contrary. L’order et la morale is a hugely ambitious film that took Kassovitz several years to make. It recounts what happened in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia in 1988 when an ‘uprising’ of Kanak people on one of the small islands of Melanesia resulted in a ‘hostage situation’ involving a group of French gendarmerie. Unfortunately, the timing of the events during the French presidential election backfired on the rebels. Despite the best efforts of the negotiation team led by Captain Philippe Legorjus of the GIGN (the counter-terrorist unit of the Gendarmerie), the situation was ‘resolved’ with overwhelming military firepower and loss of life. The script is largely based on the memoirs of Legorjus, played by Kassovitz himself in the film.

Kassovitz was once known as l’enfant terrible of French cinema. La haine (1995) was a great critical as well as commercial success in exposing police relations with the youth of les cités, the workers’ estates surrounding Paris where many second-generation migrants grew up. But Kassovitz’s next film Assassin(s) (1997) attacked the media and the young director was savaged by some of the same critics who had praised him for La haine. That film has never been released in the UK and I haven’t seen it. After that Kassovitz moved into directing English language genre films with steadily declining success – while at the same time developing a career as an actor, including an important role in Amélie, enabling him to develop an international profile as both actor and director. What is clear now is that he spent a great deal of time and effort in working on L’ordre et la morale. In the end he decided to play the central role himself, primarily for pragmatic reasons in that the production was so protracted that he couldn’t reasonably ask another actor to take the role. He’s extremely good at suggesting the highly professional approach of Philippe Legorjus (an approach he discusses in the film’s Press Pack).

I confess that the film does demand an audience willing to follow the complex rivalries between the different organisations that comprise the French armed forces and also the unique problems associated with the French political system and its electoral processes. Like the American president, the President of France can sometimes find himself (no women yet) constrained as an executive by the actions of a legislature run by the opposition. But in France the situation is even more crippling because of the cabinet government led by a Prime Minister. In 1988, socialist President Francois Mitterand faced a re-election contest against the candidate of the right, the Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac. This was the climax of the period known as ‘Co-habitation’. I don’t fully understand how the split of executive powers affected the events in New Caledonia. Mitterand should have had more power in dealing with events overseas, yet as a French ‘overseas territory’ perhaps New Caledonia was considered part of France and this was an ‘internal security’ issue?

The film narrative is essentially a long flashback to the events which led up to the nightmare conclusion. The first forward momentum is the ‘scrambling’ of the GIGN company and their flight from Paris to the other side of the world. When they arrive in New Caledonia they find that some local gendarmes are being held hostage by rebels but also that the French Army has arrived en masse and that any hopes of a peaceful negotiation are threatened by the gung-ho actions of the Army commanders.

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

It eventually transpires that Philipe Legorjus has contacts in Paris who are linked to Mitterand while the Army share the perspective of Chirac and Legorjus will eventually find himself faced by Chirac’s own minister Bernard Pons who is sent out to manage the crisis on the ground. The narrative driver is that Legorjus himself and a small number of his team of negotiators eventually meet the rebels – who are, of course, not the ‘fanatics’ portrayed by Chirac and the right-wing. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but the gripping central narrative places Legorjus himself in an almost impossible position. He attempts to remain professional and a man of honour – but he finds himself participating in brutality. He meets his obligations to some but betrays others. There is no black and white only the murky greys of colonial repression. The central figure of the rebel leader (amazingly played by the real man’s cousin who was a post-grad student in France when Kassovitz found him) is an idealistic young man whose actions are undermined by the local nationalist leaders who are also playing political games. All of this is familiar from too many situations around the world but Kassovitz makes it all real and painful. It’s a long film, mostly talk but with some intense action sequences and an intriguing ‘score’ by the ‘industrial percussion’ group Les Tambours du Bronx. There is also some great community singing under the end credits.

Rebellion is a long film (136 minutes) and it represents a remarkable achievement by Mathieu Kassovitz. He plays the central character as a man who internalises and manages to stay cool under pressure (most of the time). As director he manages an enormous ensemble cast with some experienced French actors, but also many non-professionals. I was gripped throughout and fascinated by the depiction of events. Nobody comes out of the events themselves with much credit and by all accounts many of the leading participants have tried t claim that the film is inaccurate. This article by an Australian scholar and former diplomat with experience of New Caledonia suggests that the film does tell at least some of the ‘truth’ and also points out that Mitterand (who won the election) did attempt to develop ‘peace and reconciliation’ after signing the orders to end the hostage-taking with military force. The film was shot in French Polynesia rather than Melanesia but it was eventually shown in New Caledonia – and seemingly well-received. The final credits remind us that there will be votes in 2014 on a process leading towards possible future independence.

I’m not sure if the film will get more cinema screenings in the UK but I urge you to seek it out on DVD when it appears on September 2nd (why so long, Lionsgate?). I think I’d like to return to the film then when a few more people have seen it. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:

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