Mathieu Kassovitz’s second feature 1995’s Le Haine (The Hate) was a circuit breaker. A gritty account of racism, class violence and police brutality in the Parisian suburbs, it was a firebomb straight to the heart of French cinema and indeed French society. Here was a new voice, one that existed in the fringes, courting controversy and exposing a Paris simmering ethnic tensions, economic disparity and hopeless youth.
Winning best director at Cannes that year, Kassovitz couldn’t cash in his indie cred quick enough, entering the mainstream via a series of popular yet forgettable action thrillers, and acting in films as diverse as Amelie, The Fifth Element and Spielberg’s Munich.
Yet his most recent film Rebellion (Eagle), which he co wrote, directed and starred in, demonstrates that the fire still burns. Or at the very least after decades of stumbling around in the commercial wilderness, he’s remembered how to rub two sticks together.
“One Cesar nomination. F*ck French cinema. F*ck you and your shit movies,” he Twitted recently responding to only one nomination in best adapted screenplay category. “I don’t care about the Cesars. I never did. I’m just shocked by the lack of interest.” Imagine if he’d been totally ignored.
He’s also reported as offering “I butt f*ck French cinema.” Though given I don’t know the French word for butt f*ck, this remains unsubstantiated. For the record though, yes he attended after this tirade, and no, surprisingly he didn’t win an award.
You can however understand his frustration because Rebellion is a return to form. Kassovitz stars as specialist negotiator called in to New Caledonia in 1988 when separatist rebels take 30 Gendarmes hostage. His role is complicated firstly by the thuggish war hungry behaviour of the French army and then the ongoing presidential elections between Mitterrand and Chirac back in France. It’s a fascinating delicately nuanced situation he finds himself in, attempting to appease multiple sides and multiple levels of government and bureaucracy to avoid bloodshed. There hasn’t been a film this scathing of the politics of colonialism since Italian Gillo Ponotverco’s incredible1969 epic Burn, which starred Marlon Brando and demonstrated that the real war wasn’t on the ground, but in the halls of power. Yet where Brando had blind allegiance to the crown, Kassovitz asks some hard questions of his negotiator.
This isn’t a Hollywood film. Kassovitz’s negotiator is no hero. He doesn’t have all the answers. He makes mistakes, doesn’t know who to trust and as the walls close in he despairs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the remarkably shot battle sequence. There are no heroics here, they’re pinned down by enemy fire, barely moving and the negotiator has his head in his hands, frustrated, not coping, devastated by the situation.
Kassovitz’s talent has always been readily apparent and it’s on show here, with a backwards-masking beginning that’s really the end, and really creative shot selection. It’s just a shame he’s been wasting it for so long. Whether it was vanity or simply an out of control cocaine addiction, it’s good that the worst is behind him and he’s back making intelligent boundary pushing films again. Because if there’s one thing cinema loves, it’s a comeback.