DVD Letterbox had the pleasure of being in the audience at the Palais des Festivals when Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine premiered at the 1995 Cannes film festival. You can imagine the excitement as another local tyro announced his arrival with a second feature that was energetic, topical and terrifically made.
His black-and-white musical tale of life in the Parisian housing estates crackled and Cannes loved it, awarding him the best director award.
One could only imagine what sort of directing life he would have. As it happens, it hasn’t been quite the directing career most of us would have expected. The Frenchman has been more content acting, it appears. He has directed only five features since then and, if one were to be unfair, one might classify them as pale imitations of the films Luc Besson directs. His sci-fi adventure Babylon A.D., starring Vin Diesel, was mediocre, as was the ghost story Gothika, starring the unlikely trio of Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz and Robert Downey Jr.
In contrast, Kassovitz’s latest, Rebellion ( L’Ordre et la Morale) is a revelation.
The drama (M, Eagle Eye, 129min, $29.99), based on the events of 1988 when Kanak separatists staged a mini-coup in the French colony of New Caledonia, shows what Kassovitz can achieve left to his own devices. His ‘‘international’’ movies smack of being made by a studio committee.
It is not a perfect film, by any means, but Kassovitz crafts a compelling adaptation of Philippe Legorjus’s book about his exploits as a negotiator, and captive, in a bloody event in which 19 separatists were killed after taking 27 French police as hostage.
Kassovitz wears his heart on his sleeve, offering a sympathetic interpretation of the separatists, their motives and, largely, their behaviour, sometimes to the point of earnestness.
This hasn’t won him many friends because the event unfurled during the presidential election contest between conservative PM Jacques Chirac and incumbent president Francois Mitterrand. The French domestic view at the time (and now) was uncompromising: the separatists deserved what they got.
Kassovitz and his character think otherwise. Consequently, I’m not sure he should have cast himself as Legorjus, the man of honour in a dishonourable squabble. His performance, the dialogue and overall tone occasionally lurch towards the earnest.
Otherwise, Kassovitz constructs a meaningful, if not broadly commercial, film. The politics of the varied arms of the French forces are a little muddied and character development not strong enough to reel in viewers not already involved in the political scrap.
His rendering of the battles and tension is convincing, though, and Kassovitz throws in the occasional stylistic flourish that makes a grubby subject look enticing.
It’s not quite potential fulfilled, but Rebellion goes a long way towards making up for Mathieu Kassovitz’s previous directing missteps.