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This ambitious and almost entirely successful drama sees Mathieu Kassovitz, the director of La Haine, back in France and back on form after a less than stellar time in Hollywood churning out studio cack such as Gothika and Babylon AD.

It tells the true story of a small kerfuffle in 1988 in New Caledonia, a far-flung outpost of France, and follows a crack GIGN team – a SWAT team with brains – led by Captain Philippe Legorjus (Kassovitz) as they seek to restore order after a breakaway group of separatists seize a group of gendarmes and hold them hostage in a cave in a remote part of the island.

Because of the way France organises the administration of what other countries would call colonies, New Caledonia in 1988 functioned as an integral part of the French Republic. So, as Legorjus reminds his unit en route for the Pacific, the people they are dealing with might be dark of skin and might have worn penis gourds a couple of generations ago. But they are French. Liberté, égalité and fraternité are their due just as they are any Parisian’s.

That’s the theory, at any rate. Complicating Legorjus’s humane, principled, softly-softly approach is the situation back home, where presidential elections are underway and the incumbent left-wing President Mitterand is being harried by his right wing Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, with the remote island increasingly becoming the focus of a dick-measuring contest between the two.

In scene after scene we see Kassovitz teasing his way towards the rebels, via village elders, splinter groups, a local minister, intent on being the honest broker who will defuse the situation. At the same time in face-to-face meetings with local officials, off-the-record conversations with journalists, phone calls to moles within the Elysée Palace, he’s also picking his way through layers of sabre-rattling military, double-dealing politicians, back towards the power brokers, hoping to head everybody off at the pass and avoid a bloody military escalation.

We’re watching scene after scene after scene of exposition, in other words, and it is remarkable that the director who, in Gothika, could not make the sight of Halle Berry going into a dark hole in the ground even faintly scary, manages to make all this blah about as gripping as it could be.

That’s not to say that there isn’t the occasional dangle over the pit of ennui. This is a long film and it does feel it. Kassovitz’s decision to keep faith with his source material – the real Legorjus’s book, La Morale et L’Action – is against him at times, complexity and length not always being the friends of drama.

Realising this, the director works to keep up interest, favouring brisk no-nonsense scenes, money shots of military hardware, and long stretches of dialogue delivered in “napalm in the morning” style. There’s even, just occasionally, a bit of Willard voiceover.

If Kassovitz is winking towards Coppola I don’t think he’s attempting his own Apocalypse Now – Rebellion is far more about the tension between soldiers and politicians, action and negotiation, and is at its best on the exploitable imperfection of democracy; how a baying media at election time can encourage a politician towards sacrificing principle or even human life.

Kassovitz doesn’t only direct, he’s also by a very long way the lead actor here, in almost every scene and never less than entirely believable as the lean, tough, principled military man who’s seen it all and learnt a bit of humanity on the way.

Cinematographically, Marc Koninckx is as adept at showing us military men winding up the war machine as he is in delivering aerial shots of the island that show it as a long sliver of beauty in an azure sea. He’s equally at home on the laidback local lifestyle of New Caledonia (the film is actually shot in Tahiti) as he is at depictions of the fog of war.

Klaus Badelt’s spare soundtrack is also worth a mention. Particularly in the film’s early stages when it seems to consist of sounds like a battleship being hit by a tree trunk, all overlaid with the rat-tat-tatting of snare drums – militaristic and full of foreboding – it guides us into the action as surely as the screenplay.

What’s perhaps most unusual of all about this film is that Kassovitz takes us into a war zone and then doesn’t give us a war film. That’s peculiar, audacious. It’s nice to have him back.

Rebellion – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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