'The Breitner Commando' ('Qu'un sang impur…'): Film Review

The Breitner Commando - Mars Films -Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Mars Films
Between exploitation and historical damnation.

'A Prophet' screenwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri's feature helming debut follows a band of misfit soldiers on a deadly mission during the Algerian War.

Unlike the Vietnam War, which spawned Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and several other modern classics, the Algerian War, which was very much France’s Vietnam, did no such thing. In fact, beyond a few outliers like The Battle of Algiers (an Italian-Algerian production with a partial French cast) or the work of director René Vautier, many of whose movies were banned upon release, French cinema generally steered clear of a major 20th century conflict that would mark the end of its colonial empire. Or else, in films as diverse as Godard’s Le Petit soldat, Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Resnais’ Muriel, the war in Algeria was only seen from afar via the ripple effects it had back home, especially on French youth.

Recently, however, certain Gallic directors have attempted to tackle the Algerian quagmire head-on, often bringing out the big guns to do so. In historical epics like Intimate Enemies (2007), Outside the Law (2010) or What the Day Owes the Night (2012), as well as the more intimate Albert Camus adaptation Far From Men (2014), we’re whisked right back into the heart of the conflict, with the hindsight of history allowing for more distance and possibly greater objectivity. The war, which tore apart Algeria for nearly a decade and threatened to tear apart the political fabric of France in the early 1960s, is now a backdrop for period pieces and genre exercises where moral ambiguities, as well as untold atrocities and bloodshed, often take center stage.

The latest example, Abdel Raouf Dafri’s action-packed The Breitner Commando (Qu’un sang impur…), is definitely high on the latter, kicking off with a tense and brutal torture scene that quickly degenerates into a massacre, then going on to deliver a steady supply of gore and violence throughout much of its running time. With a plot closer to The Dirty Dozen or Inglourious Basterds than to anything vaguely historic, yet with a weighty message about how abominable the Algerian War truly was, the film sits uneasily between a (rather well-made) B-movie and a dreary account of human trauma, never deciding which of the two it wants to be and never convincing that it's possible to be both. As such, and despite Dafri’s bona fides as the screenwriter of A Prophet and the Mesrine crime biopics, his first effort behind the camera was released with little fanfare in France.

Not that everything in Breitner Commando fails to work: Dafri reveals a keen sense of staging in some of the set-pieces, especially an opening sequence with echoes of Sergio Leone (including a neverending phone ring à la Once Upon a Time in America) and a tautly played scene where a female bomb expert has to uncover a minefield with bare feet and pure instinct. But the plot developments accompanying the action are often familiar, if not rather incredulous, leading to a standoff that never quite clarifies the director’s bleak vision.

Set in 1960, when the Algerian conflict had already been underway for six years, the story follows Colonel Andreas Breitner (Johan Heldenbergh, The Broken Circle Breakdown) and the band of misfits he puts together for a secret mission: Infiltrate enemy territory, locate the remains of a slain French soldier and send them back home. Still suffering from PTSD after a long stint in Indochina — many members of the French military elite were sent to serve in Algeria after losing the decade-long colonial war in the Far East — Breitner brings along his fellow fighter and partner, Soua Ly-Yang (Linh-Dan Pham), and then enlists a motley crew of soldiers that includes a Senegalese sergeant (Steve Tientcheu) who’s handy with a knife, a skilled sharpshooter (Pierre Lottin) with a face tattoo and racist worldview, and an imprisoned, very resistant Algerian girl nicknamed “Bent” (Lyna Khoudri, Papicha).

Part A-Team, part Benetton ad, with its multiethnic members each representing a distinct facet of the conflict, Breitner’s commandos roam the Algerian badlands in search of the massacred soldier, with only a few weeks to complete their quest before the guerilla-controlled maquis are torched with napalm (a real event also depicted in Intimate Enemies). Along the way, they cross paths with Gallic officers summarily executing Algerian fighters after forcing them to sing “La Marseillaise”— the film’s original title is taken from the French national anthem’s macabre chorus: “Let an impure blood / Water our furrows!” — as well as children being murdered by a band of Algerian vagrants, who soon receive brutal justice at the hands of Breitner’s delta force.

Dafri makes a point of showing how cruel both sides could be in an incredibly cruel war, beginning his movie with back-to-back atrocities committed by the French army and the FLN (Algeria’s National Liberation Front), depicting more heinous violence in the mid-section and circling back in the last act to do much of the same. It’s so over-the-top in places that The Breitner Commando often plays like a grindhouse version of history.

And yet the writer-director also laces his scenario with a fair amount of moral dilemmas, depicting a population caught between multiple allegiances after over a century of French occupation and an occupying army unsure of its noble cause. “Algeria is France!” one Frenchman exclaims matter-of-factly, underlining how killing Algerians is akin to killing your fellow countrymen (most Algerians were granted French citizenship after World War II).  But what do you do when your countrymen are shooting at you?

It’s unfortunate, then, that The Breitner Commando, for all the questions it raises, often answers them with pure, bone-crunching mayhem, as if Dafri were unable to shake off his roots writing genre flicks (albeit a few “elevated” ones) to make something more sophisticated here. The lead characters feel especially underwritten, with Breitner a cliché of the traumatized alcoholic soldier drawn from the likes of John Rambo and Captain Willard (he’s introduced exactly the same way as Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now), and Olivier Gourmet showing up late in the game as a Kurtz-like French colonel sporting a great tan and a ridiculous Aladdin-style beard that belies anything serious coming out of his mouth.

On the plus side, the monumental locations (shooting was done in Morocco) and widescreen camerawork of Michel Amathieu (Diplomacy) help to lend the film an epic flair, particularly during the action sequences. A few performances also stand out, including kickboxer-turned-actor Salim Kechiouche (Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno) as a ruthless FLN guerilla, and the talented Khoudri as a young militant obliged to fight for the enemy. The sad and torturous fate of her character, Bent, winds up being emblematic of a war where you were often damned no matter which side you were fighting on.

Production companies: Moana Films, Bellini Films, France 2 Cinéma
Cast: Johan Heldenbergh, Linh-Dan Pham, Lyna Khoudri, Steve Tientcheu, Pierre Lottin, Olivier Gourmet, Salim Kechiouche
Director-screenwriter: Abdel Raouf Dafri
Producer: Marc Missonnier
Executive producers: Bénédicte Bellocq, Souad Lamriki
Director of photography: Michel Amathieu
Production designer: Gwendal Bescond
Costume designer: Agnès Beziers
Editor: Sylvie Gadmer
Composer: Éric Neveux
Casting director: Michaël Laguens
Sales: Playtime

In French, Arabic
109 minutes