'Close Enemies' ('Freres Ennemis'): Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A top-tier genre yarn.

French director David Oelhoffen (Viggo Mortensen starrer 'Far From Men') returns to the Venice competition with this gritty crime drama starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Reda Kateb.

Two men who grew up as buddies in the same derelict banlieue of Paris find themselves on opposites sides of the law in Close Enemies (Freres ennemis), a gritty crime drama that brings director David Oelhoffen back to the Venice competition four years after his Viggo Mortensen vehicle Far From Men premiered there. Mortensen’s co-star from that film, Zero Dark Thirty’s Reda Kateb, here plays a banlieue boy turned cop, while his childhood friend, who is now part of a major drug-dealing operation, has grown up to look like Matthias Schoenaerts (Red Sparrow, Rust and Bone). Though the setup and some of the twists are certainly familiar, this is nonetheless top-shelf genre fare as the expected cat-and-mouse game is entertainingly and occasionally nail-bitingly turned into an always fast-paced game of shifting allegiances. 

While perhaps too much of a genre item for major awards in Venice, sales agent Bac Films will probably not complain, as this should interest distributors who made plenty of coin from previous French crime hits with bankable French stars, such as 36 Quai des Orfevres, with Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil, and Crimson Rivers, with Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel.  

The film’s double opening sketches the release from prison of Nouri (Omar Salim), who is eagerly awaited on the parking lot by his buddy, Manuel (Schoenaerts), and a large part of Nouri’s family, while elsewhere in the city, narcotics officer Driss (Kateb) participates in an ugly raid in a high-rise. By contrasting the two elements, the director, who co-wrote the pic with Jeanne Aptekman, efficiently establishes the two different worlds in which Manu and Driss live, with one part of a large and loving — if clearly also criminal — clan that sticks together and is close to the ground and the other working with others in a higher-up position in society but in a field without much love at all: law enforcement. 

The thing that will bring the childhood friends back together is a spectacularly staged attack on a car that’s carrying Manuel, Imrane (Adel Bencherif) and one other person while on their way to a big transaction. Manuel barely escapes the brutal, viscerally staged mayhem, which leaves the other two men dead and Manuel with nothing, as the perpetrator escaped with the loot. Staged in an elegant residential street in Paris in broad daylight, the case attracts the attention of Driss as well, not only because of the obvious drugs element but because Imrane was secretly one of his informers and he was aware of the deal they were about to make.

Driss thus takes it upon himself to go and inform Imrane’s wife, Mounia (Sabrina Ouazani), that she’s become a widow. We’ve seen this type of scene many times before, but Oelhoffen’s world building, even so early into the film, is so complete that the moment is quietly heart-wrenching as Mounia wonders why Driss, whom she hasn’t seen socially for years — likely since he became a cop — suddenly knocks on her door and she then silently puts two and two together. It is in this scene, and the handful of others with Mounia, that Close Enemies suggests the real price of what these men are up to, as the family's women are finally left behind to pick up the pieces. The short domestic scenes thus function to make us care about the (male) protagonists even more, as we realize what would happen to their families if they don’t survive. Though the female characters are hardly fleshed out, they matter because they lend credence to the idea that the males have lives beyond what they do, whether legally or illegally, for a living (it also makes the lack of a real family life for Driss conspicuous by its absence).    

Indeed, in terms of character setup, Manuel has a young son (Noah Benzaquen) with Manon (Gwendolyn Gourvenec), an ex-partner, for probably the same reason, as it makes audiences root for his survival more. That said, Oelhoffen seems incapable of dealing with two strong female characters simultaneously, as Mounia is the only female character that matters in the first half while Manon becomes more prominent in the second as Mounia, rather regrettably, fades into the background.

Most of the film, however, is dominated by alpha-male types, including various members of Imrane’s extended family, from grandfathers to teenage boys and everything in-between. Yet the pic’s focus remains mostly on Manu and Driss, who come to realize they might actually need each other to survive in the messy fallout of the vehicle shootout. Losing two people in a drug deal of which the narcotics brigade was aware is a major mistake and embarrassment for Driss, while Manu fears for his life as he escaped what was clearly an attempt on his life and the assailants do not know what he has seen or how much he knows or suspects. Driss and Manu are thus both desperate to figure out who was behind the attack on the deal that cost two lives, with Oelhoffen zig-zagging through the complex but never complicated plot with superb ease and confidence. 

There are lovely character touches that suggest something about the specific milieu and multi-layered identities of many from the French projects. The fact that Driss tells a criminal who shouts at him in Arabic that he doesn’t speak the language, for example, suggests he might be a second-generation immigrant. But that notion could be completely false, as Driss later speaks to his parents, whom he hasn’t seen in ages, in the same language, though there’s clearly a sense there is an enormous gulf between his folks and himself. Clearly, his choice to go and work for the French state, which is at least partially responsible for the marginalization of immigrant families that could have helped to push them into crime in the first place, and to then investigate some of the people he grew up with, is something a lot of people clearly cannot handle. It is this kind of texture, added with a few quick brushstrokes instead of sociopolitical speechifying, that makes the film feel believably anchored in a very specific environment while clearly setting it apart from more generic crime dramas. 

Both Kateb and Schoenaerts are masters at underplaying their characters’ emotions without turning into blank slates. As two driven and quick-thinking men with clear objectives, it is a simply a pleasure to sit back and let them try to outmaneuver one another while always contemplating, in the back of their heads, whether it wouldn’t make more sense for them to team up. Except for the pic’s last shots, which could be removed, Oelhoffen thankfully avoids any sentimentalization of their shared past, thus keeping all the action in the stone-cold, fast-moving and oh-so-dangerous present.  

Cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, probably most known for his work with local auteur Bruno Dumont (though he also shot Oelhoffen’s Far From Men), proves very adept at the action genre. Handheld camerawork is used in some of the most agitated sequences without ever sacrificing spatial coherence, while close-ups of the actors’ faces are used to further heighten the emotions where necessary. A predominantly gray-blue color palate further reinforces the sense of urban grit, while Superpoze’s nervy, minimalist score completes the package.   

Production companies: One World Films, Bac Films
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Reda Kateb, Adel Bencherif, Sofiane Zermani, Nicolas Giraud, Sabrina Ouazani, Gwendolyn Gourvenec, Marc Barbe, Astrid Whettnall, Yann Goven
Director: David Oelhoffen
Screenwriters: David Oelhoffen, Jeanne Aptekman
Producers: Marc du Pontavice
Director of photography: Guillaume Deffontaines
Production designer: Stephane Taillasson
Costume designer: Anne-Sophie Gledhill
Editor: Anne-Sophie Bion
Music: Superpoze
Casting: Justine Leocadie
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Bac Films

In French, Arabic
111 minutes