cast: Benoît Magimel, Albert Dupontel, Marc Barbé, and Mohamed Fellag
director: Florent Emilio Siri
105 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Contender DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jim Steel
War is tragedy, but the war film is the perfect cinematic reflection of the human condition. World War II was so vast that it offers an almost infinite variety of interpretations and usages. We’ve had comedy, romance, horror, history and soap. We’ve had so many, in fact, that when genuine classics such as Downfall or The Thin Red Line come along, they don’t adversely affect the market for other, lesser films. Possibly only the western has offered a similar scope, and that contains a multitude of little wars. Other wars have a more limited appeal for the filmmaker. World War I, the steam-punk little brother to the second, is forever set in a ‘war is hell’ mode, and the minor-key song of Vietnam has also been reduced to cliché. They are still attractive enough to have their own cinematic cannon.
Of course, there are plenty of obscure wars that offer the opportunity to make the definitive film on the subject (at least until the second film comes along). What, however, are we to make of someone who tackles the Algerian War of Independence? It shows self-confidence, if nothing else. Gino Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers is the only other film that most people can name concerning this conflict. It also happens to be one of the best films ever made, period, and is the ghost at the feast in the copious interviews that fill most of the second disc in this two-disc set. There is also Rachid Bouchareb’s recent Days Of Glory, dealing with the experience of Algerian soldiers who joined the free French in World War II, which is again very relevant but here is merely represented as a trailer. Florent Emilio Siri’s Intimate Enemies (aka: L’Ennemi intime) is technically superior, but it does feel like a thematic sequel to the Bouchareb one.
Lieutenant Terrien (Benoît Magimel) arrives at the mountain outpost of a platoon to replace a man who was killed in a friendly-fire incident. He has never been in a war zone before. This is 1959, however, and many of his men are veterans of Vietnam and WWII (they even run across a villager who was a veteran of the First World War) and, by now, all are battle-hardened veterans of the brutal Algerian War. The overarching theme of the film is not a question of how did we get here, but how do we escape this? War seems an ever-present horror that brutalises and maddens men. And, to be fair to Siri, he manages to provide a couple of potential escape routes. The film is built around a series of search-and-destroy missions in the superb lunar landscape of the Moroccan location.
It quickly becomes apparent to Terrien that his side are torturing and executing prisoners (they think it so matter-of-fact that they don’t even consider hiding it from him). However, he also sees that the FLN – the Algerian guerrillas – are also capable of atrocities. Morally, one side is as bad as the other. Logically, both sides have reason behind their actions. The torture does bring valuable information. The atrocities (by both sides) keep the civil populace in fear. After one FLN massacre, Comandant Vesoul (Aurélien Recoing in a beard that only a psychotic would wear) addresses the French troops and explains the rational behind the apparent madness of the FLN. As Terrien gradually starts to lose his grip on his personality, the viewpoint of the film slowly shifts to other characters. While we cannot condone their actions, we find out how they have reached the place that they find themselves in. Capitaine Berthaut (Marc Barbé), a special forces operative, was in the French resistance during WWII and was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Now he does the same to FLN prisoners. Many of the FLN are ex-servicemen from the free French army of the same war and frequently the soldiers find themselves fighting against their former comrades. There are also many Algerians in the French army, which just adds to the mistrust and confusion. Saïd (Lounés Tazaïrt) fought with the French in Europe and fights with them in Algeria. He is a career soldier, and would be lost without the army. Later on we find that the FLN slaughtered his family, and he has nothing to go back to anyway.
It’s a haunting experience, quite literally so at one point. When the platoon arrives in a deserted village there are dust devils dancing through the streets, looking for-all-the-world like ghosts. Another highpoint, if it can be termed as such, is when the platoon calls in an air strike on an FLN position. The resulting napalm bombing makes the one in Apocalypse Now look like a municipal firework display. The photography is superb throughout, and Alexandre Desplat’s hollow score, reminiscent of Miles Davis at times, cuts to the soul.
The second disc is packed with extras and for once most of them are worth watching. There is almost an hour’s worth of an interview with Siri. The interviewer is annoyingly obtuse at times, but he leaves enough space for Siri to explain about the film and his influences. The westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone are mentioned, for example, but personally I was reminded of some of the independent existentialist westerns that appeared in the 1960s. There are also interviews (this time conduced by Seri) with Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci (the director of photography) and Desplat that are technically fascinating. The interviews with the cast are variable, but some of the Algerian actors are old enough to have had childhood memories of the conflict. Lounés Tazaïrt, for example, had a father who was in the FLN, and here he finds himself playing a French soldier. There is also the obligatory trailer, and some examples of the storyboards that don’t add too much to the experience, but the second disc is generally good value.
It is the film itself that will stick in the mind, though. There is a concentration camp guard in most of us, if the right buttons are pushed. For some it is merely the ‘on’ switch that needs to be hit, while for others there are a large numbers of buttons that have to be pressed in exactly the correct order, but the monster is waiting there.