Intimate Enemies

Intimate Enemies


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The ‘platoon movie’ has always proved fertile ground for filmmakers, from John Ford to Oliver Stone. It provides a ready-made claustrophobic setting, a chance to throw several disparate characters together, and a constant threat of life-or-death danger.

Florent Emilio Siri’s intense examination of one of the darker chapters from France’s recent past provides an honourable addition to the roll call, making some interesting observations on a conflict that many in Britain (and France) still know little about. And, while it never achieves the classic status of some of its forebears, it’s a gripping study of modern warfare at its most savage.

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It follows the experiences of Lt Therrien (Benoît Magimel), a young middle-class professional conscripted as part of France’s “security operation” against the FLN insurgents fighting for Algerian independence. Rather than sit out his time in a desk job, he volunteers for combat duty at a remote outpost far into the country’s mountainous interior.

Here he finds his ideals of fighting an honourable war and allowing the Algerian people to decide their own destiny free from the threat of violence severely tested. The enemy is an unseen but deadly presence, striking from nowhere and disappearing back into the mountains. Every village has a pair of eyes and ears for the “fellagha” and the French troops find their every move anticipated. Using modern weapons, such as napalm air strikes, has little effect except to turn the locals against them, and he soon realises that the only tactics that seem to have any effect are torture and terror. On top of that, he begins to suspect that one of the platoon’s “harki” (ex-FLN now ‘turned’ and working for the French again) could be tipping off the enemy.

Therrien’s attempts to curb the excesses of the men under his command while still keeping them alive form the crux of the film, with his increasing disillusionment contrasted with the pragmatism of his platoon sergeant, Dougnac (Albert Dupontel). Meanwhile, his by-the-book attitude is beginning to irritate his superiors; in terms of the soldier’s code, as well as simple morality, he’s right but for them the only way to fight the FLN is by being just as nasty. And it might be more convenient if he were removed from the picture...

Any movie that tackles the Algerian conflict will inevitably be compared to Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 classic Battle Of Algiers. Although he focuses on the guerrilla campaign in the interior rather than the urban terrorism in the capital, Siri doesn’t shy away from comparisons – Alexandre Desplat’s music calls to mind the work of Ennio Morricone, who scored Pontecorvo’s film, and he makes the same telling point that many of the men fighting in Algiers were World War Two veterans, who barely a decade after fighting the Nazis found themselves called ‘fascists’ for their tactics against the FLN.

Siri’s film also points out that many FLN were veterans, too, of the 1944 Italian campaign, where the bulk of the French contingent was made up of African colonial troops (the subject of last year’s Days Of Glory).

The film, unlike Pontecorvo’s, has no major FLN speaking parts but this seems to me a deliberate device, to keep the enemy a shadowy but ruthlessly efficient presence, constantly one step ahead of Therrien and his men. And Siri certainly shows that the FLN had a point (as one character says, Morocco and Tunisia had by this time been granted independence by France, so why not Algeria?) without in any way whitewashing their tactics; they use terror and intimidation as much as the French and have the advantage of knowing the terrain inside out. The image of the warrior tribe used to fighting occupiers for centuries, in a country where up-to-date weaponry is no guarantee of victory, is one that has always resonated, from the Wild west to Vietnam, and without being too heavy-handed, Siri suggests that Therrien’s experience has plenty of contemporary parallels.

This isn’t a dry political treatise, though. Siri (perhaps best known for directing the Bruce Willis starrer Hostage) has a background in pop video and game design and the film has a series of stunning images, as well as combat scenes with a POV intensity to rival Saving Private Ryan. The sun-scorched rockscape (lovingly shot by veteran cinematographer Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci) and the shadowy, timber and clay interiors of the outpost recall Leone. But the character-driven focus on men in battle (there are no female characters) is more in tune with the ‘cavalry westerns’ of John Ford.

The characters here are more stereotypical (the idealistic lieutenant, the tough sergeant, the innocent recruit, the one who’s a bit too keen on killing) but some stories work best with the painting in broader strokes. And it’s a fact that in today’s world, groups of young men are still killing and dying a long way from home, for ideals to which those above them don’t always adhere. This film is a study of one such group, but it’s a tribute to all of them.

Reviewed on: 29 Jun 2008
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A young army lieutenant volunteers for frontline duty in Algeria in 1959, and soon learns the realities of France’s “dirty war”.
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Director: Florent Emilio Siri

Writer: Florent Emilio Siri, Patrick Rotman

Starring: Benoit Magimel, Albert Dupontel, Aurélien Recoing, Marc Barbé, Eric Savin, Mohamed Fellag, Lounès Tazairt

Year: 2007

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France


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