REVIEW – Rebellion (2011)

rebellion-quadFilmJuice have my review of Mathieu Kassovitz’s political thriller Rebellion (a.k.a. L’Ordre et La Morale – which is a much better title).

Based not only on historical events but historical events involving French politicians who have only recently left the stage, the film tells of how a group of political activists protested the continued French political control of New Caledonia. Hoping to catch the attention of the media by occupying a French gendarmerie in the run-up to the 1988 French general election, the Kanak protesters accidentally killed a policeman resulting in the French army being sent to reassert ‘order and morality’ on what is still considered French soil. Kassovitz himself plays a French gendarme who is sent to negotiate a settlement only to discover that both the French military and their political masters are dead set on violence resulting in what has become known as the Ouvea cave massacre.

As with La Haine, Kassovitz jumps into the political elements of his narrative with real zeal and understanding. Using Legorjus as a viewpoint, Kassovitz crawls around inside the Ouvea massacre and shows not only the cowardice of the separatist politicians who failed to support their own activists but the complete moral bankruptcy of a French political class who used a real-life hostage situation as an opportunity to grandstand on the eve of a national election. However, unlike many political films that are content to bewail the system and blame impersonal forces for the ills of the world, Rebellion goes out of its way to name real-life politicians and speculate about their motives. Why did Jacques Chirac close the door on negotiations? Because he wanted to attract the votes of the French National Front and he knew that brown bodies meant votes. Why did the separatist politicians fail to support their own activists? Because they were afraid of being associated with dead police even though the plan to occupy police stations was theirs to begin with. Rebellion is a blisteringly angry film and watching it will make you angry too; if Western governments behaved this badly in 1988, what do you think it says about the people in power today?

As I say in my review, I think that Rebellion is a real return to form for Kassovitz. While I’ve enjoyed almost all the films he has directed, I remain of the opinion that La Haine will be the film for which he is remembered and Rebellion shows a real desire to return to the same levels of anger and political engagement. Possibly one of the best-made and more courageous political thrillers of recent times, this film really puts all of those terrible Iraq War films in perspective. All too often, political stories stress the cultural dimensions of their analyses resulting in a snapshot of a particular moment in time that blames nobody by exaggerating the inevitability of it all. This type of analysis that focuses on systemic forces rather than individual personalities is alarmingly common in American politics where perpetual warfare, the brutalisation of the poor and the rich getting richer are all seen as just shit that happens. By naming names and placing the blame not just on ‘the political class’ but on particular people within that political class, Kassovitz is reminding us that politicians are responsible for the offices they are elected to fill and who is in office at a particular time really does matter. Had Jacques Chirac not been eager to secure the votes of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s followers then chances are that the hostage takers would have walked away unharmed and ready to face justice.

Some Thoughts On… The Princess of Montpensier (2010)

Based on a novel by Madame de la Fayette, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier tells a story of love, betrayal, jealousy and intrigue set against a vicious 16th Century French civil war that saw Protestants square off against Catholics.

On initial viewing, there is little to distinguish The Princess of Montpensier from the growing backlog of pleasingly cynical romances that have come to dominate French period drama over the last couple of decades. For example, if you liked the swashbuckling aspects of Philippe de Broca’s Le Bossu (1997) or the acute social commentary of Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule (1997) then you will find in Tavernier’s film elements of both. However, look beyond the masked balls and the buckled swashes and you will also find a film that is refreshingly literary in its approach to storytelling.

Many films are formulaic creations content to tell and retell the same stories that people have been telling to each other since fire met side and beer met lips.  In these ancient narratives, character only ever serves as ballast as the issue is never what a particular character will do but which of his character traits will force him down the rabbit hole of conventional narrative form: is the young hero motivated by passion or by a desire to prove himself? Is his quest for truth, for himself or for love? An approach to narrative that prizes effectiveness of plot over respect for character and complexity is a fixture of genre and there’s a genre for everything these days.  Thankfully, some works take a different approach in so far as they place the impetus not upon the plot but upon the characters.  The plot, in such forms of writing, comes from the characters and not from some procrustean notion of what constitutes a story.  This approach to plotting is particularly evident in the televisual writings of David Milch, whose Deadwood and John from Cincinatti both featured narratives that emerged organically as a result of having a bunch of well-drawn characters shoved into a confined space in which they are forced to interact.

The Princess of Montpensier is a film that is written very much in the Milchian tradition.  It begins by introducing us to a series of characters and then waits patiently as these characters’ personality traits force them into conflict with each other.  The characters in question are:

  • Marie (Melanie Thierry): The beautiful and intelligent daughter of a wealthy but guileless nobleman.
  • De Chabannes (Lambert Wilson): The accomplished scholar, courtier and warrior whose disaffection with violence has resulted in banishment from court and a job as Marie’s tutor in the courtly arts.
  • Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet): The son of an ambitious nobleman whose character and skills never quite live up to his aspirations.
  • De Guise (Gaspard Ulliel): The impossibly skilled and glamorous scion of the wealthiest family in the realm.
  • Anjou (Raphael Personnaz): Son of the Queen and General of the Catholic armies.

For nearly two and a half hours, The Princess of Montpensier shows us what happens when some of the most accomplished, powerful and greedy men in France fall in love with the same woman. Some love her because others love her, some love her for who she is and some love her because she is theirs by right or by love.  Regardless of their motivations and Marie’s attitude towards them, these men are all willing to stake everything they have in order to get what they want. The film’s plot flows naturally from the ensuing conflicts as disagreements, jealousies and insecurities pile on top of each other as irrational desires surge and spiral out of control. This treatment of irrational passion makes the film an interesting companion piece to Patrice Chereau’s Dumas-inspired La Reine Margot (1994), which features many of the same historical characters and settings.

La Reine Margot explains the French Wars of Religion by presenting Early Modern France as a bubbling cauldron of sexual, religious and political passions, passions that inevitably bubbled over into mass hysteria resulting in the demented carnage of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  Chereau depicts Paris as a sweltering, flea-infested place that is so overcrowded and full of drink and hatred that the massacre could just as easily have been caused by a fight over a barmaid as by the desire to control the spiritual fate of the nation. Religious violence, for Chereau, is just an expression of humanity’s inherent psychological instability.

Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier opts for a slightly different approach by presenting 16th Century France as an eminently reasonable place in which people go about their business without being overly worried by matters of religion or love. Indeed, given that the plot involves only Catholic nobles, the Huguenots are absent from the bulk of the film excepting one brilliant scene in which their black-clad countenances are warped and rendered monstrous and ethereal by an imperfect pane of glass. By presenting the irrational conflict over Marie as an uncharacteristic moment of madness, Tavernier is presenting Marie as a sort of thematic placeholder for the high ground of French political life, whether it is secular or religious. By showing us how a number of powerful and accomplished men can destroy themselves for the sake of a woman, Tavernier is suggesting how the Wars of Religion might have come to pass, namely that it is a small step from a life of sanity to an orgy of blood and self-destructive violence.

Grounded in some beautifully drawn and wonderfully performed characters and boasting some neat sword-fights and battle sequences, The Princess of Montpensier is a timely reminder not only of the cynical wonders of French period drama but also of the astonishing richness of French history. The French Wars of Religion saw the French body politic tear itself to shreds as the desire for compromise and peace was driven out by a murderous need for purity and blood. By setting a tragic romance against this backdrop, Tavernier is warning us that human nature is so unstable that there is no telling when such moments of madness might grip us again.

REVIEW – Left Bank (2008)

Videovista have my review of Van Hees’ wonderfully unpleasant Horror film Left Bank.

Left Bank is reminiscent of films like Irreversible and Cruising in so far as it manages to engage with a set of unpalatable attitudes in a critical way despite embodying those attitudes in the cinematography of the film.  In Cruising, the attitude in question was homophobia, in Left Bank it is misogyny.

REVIEW – Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Videovista have my review of F. Gary Gray’s genuinely lamentable Law Abiding Citizen.

I hated this film.  I hated it not because it is intensely stupid – some stupid films can be great fun – but because it is an intensely stupid film that tries to pretend that it is insightful and politically engaged.  This is the cinematic equivalent of the Tea Party : Fascistic chest-pounding and bellowing masquerading as debate.

REVIEW – Heathen (2009)

THE ZONE has my review of Ross Shepherd’s no-budget psychological thriller Heathen.

It’s a very nicely directed little British film with an interestingly against-the-grain central performance but it is ultimately let down by a weak script that unravels in the final act.  Still, it’s impressive quite how much can be accomplished for no money at all.