'The Brigade' ('Les Hommes du feu'): Film Review

The Brigate Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of 2.4.7. Films/Roger Arpajou
Well-researched if dramatically routine.

Roschdy Zem and Emilie Dequenne play a pair of French firefighters in this StudioCanal-backed feature from director Pierre Jolivet ('The Night Watchman').

A full-blown immersion inside a working French fire station, The Brigade (Les Hommes du feu) deserves credit for the nearly documentary way it captures the life-risking and life-saving quotidian of a squad of firefighters based in the Gallic southwest.

But as a dramatic thriller, this lackluster effort from writer-director Pierre Jolivet (The Night Watchmen) suffers from generic storytelling and a very telefilm-style sheen — to the point that it often feels less like a movie than like a fictionalized training video. A decent cast lead by Roschdy Zem (Point Blank) and Emilie Dequenne (Rosetta) should give this StudioCanal release a slight push at the local box office, but this is clearly no Backdraft or The Towering Inferno or heck, Ladder 49.

Even its French-language title, which translates to Men of the Fire, is a rather dull one that conveys the film's limited vision. And all the lines of cliched dialogue, such as an exchange between a fireman and his chief as they head toward another forest blaze (“I know I shouldn’t say this, but it’s kind of beautiful to look at.” “Yes…but from a distance.”), hardly convince us that this is top-tier moviemaking.

To its credit, The Brigade does take great pains to show us what it’s like to work in a Gallic caserne de pompiers, which basically functions like your average American firehouse, with a few notable differences: One, French firemen also serve as EMTs and are usually first responders for any major accident or medical emergency; two, while on the job they go through a rigorous daily physical training program (you can see them jogging around any major French city each morning); and three, they seem to drink a lot of red wine at the firehouse, whether they're off duty or on.

The latter may only be because the squad featured in The Brigade is stationed near the southern city of Carcassonne, in a small town surrounded by rolling vineyards. (There’s actually a scene in the film where they attempt to rescue a farmer who’s fallen into a vat of grapes.) But even if the firemen are shown to be party hearty bad boys — including, at one point, fornicating with drunk girls in the locker room — Jolivet mostly revels in their daily heroism, whether it’s saving lives or putting out a series of brush fires plaguing the area.

In terms of plot, the film mainly focuses on two characters: Benedicte (Dequenne), a tough but emotional firewoman who joins the group and then flubs one of her first rescue missions, setting a sexist colleague, Xavier (Michael Abiteboul), against her; and the stoical but kindhearted veteran chief Philippe (Zem), who tries to find the arsonist behind the local conflagrations.

Both stories are handled in an extremely routine manner by Jolivet, who seems much more interested in capturing the nitty-gritty of rural firefighter life than in creating any kind of suspense or narrative depth. Details such as the way the squad tackles medical emergencies (including delivering a pair of twins in one feel-good sequence), or the way they battle a blaze in a housing project filled with angry bottle-throwing residents, are far more convincing than plotlines that head to predictable places and dialogue that’s often risibly on-the-nose.

A kitschy score by Adrien Jolivet (the director’s son) doesn’t help matters either, although smooth widescreen camerawork by Jerome Almeras (In the House) makes good use of the naturalistic settings and scorched-earth landscapes of the Languedoc region. Other tech contributions are solid, and The Brigade does succeed in re-creating the harrowing daily ordeals that the firemen (and woman) experience while on the job. It's only when the film switches from fact-based reality to pure fiction that the viewer winds up getting burned.

Production companies: 2.4.7. Films, StudioCanal, France 3 Television
Cast: Roschdy Zem, Emilie Dequenne, Michael Abiteboul, Guillaume Labbe
Director, screenwriter: Pierre Jolivet
Producers: Marc-Antoine Robert, Xavier Rigault
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designers: Emile Ghigo, Marianne Arsa Thomas
Costume designers: Sonia Sival, Marion Meseguer
Editor: Yves Deschamps
Composer: Adrien Jolivet
Casting directors: Michael Laguens, Agnes Alberny
Sales: StudioCanal

In French
90 minutes