Intimate Enemies



Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- As part of the ongoing French re-examination of its Algerian war, Florent-Emilio Siri offers "Intimate Enemies" ("L'Ennemi intime"), an unblinking look at the barbarity of war in general and the particular viciousness of colonial conflicts, which seem only to increase the cruelty due to the intimacy between the adversaries. While following a fairly predictable story line, the film has enough ambushes, treachery and irony to sustain audience involvement with a range of characters that stand for diverse points of view about that war.

While French-speaking territories and former colonies will find much to admire and debate, the film turns into a standard-issue war movie elsewhere. American audiences may draw parallels with the current Iraq quagmire with its alleged war crimes and prisoner abuse. Yet there are currently more than enough Yank docs and features exploring those issues directly for a French film to make much of a penetration into the North American war-is-hell movie market.

Siri, basing his film on a Patrick Rotman novel, focuses on the 1959 posting of a young, idealistic professional, who actually volunteers to serve in a war fought mostly by conscripts. Lt. Terrien (Benoit Magimel) is determined to wage war within the perimeters of Geneva Conventions and human decency despite the ruthlessness of this guerilla conflict with an Arab insurgency.

Terrien is assigned a battalion command in a remote, hardscrabble territory where the French have drawn up a Forbidden Zone that is routinely violated. Tellingly, he replaces an officer killed in friendly fire.

His nemesis is an old Indochina hand, Sgt. Dougnac (Albert Dupontel), who is quick to demonstrate to his naive commander the utter brutality of the fellaghas or nationalist fighters, who don't flinch from slaughtering an entire village of fellow Arabs in reprisal for a visit by French soldiers. The sole survivor from that massacre is a young boy who joins the soldiers in gratitude. But as violent debauchery slowly warps Terrien's outlook, the boy becomes a moral conscience by which the officer can gauge the native response to French torture and retaliation.

The film revels in irony. Algerian fighters on both sides fought along side French soldiers in the liberation of Europe from Nazi terror. Whether they continue to collaborate or oppose their former comrades, their identities remain undeniably murky even to themselves. The more violent the French response to Arab terrorism, the more it radicalizes the native population. The more Terrien tries to do the right thing, the more things backfire, creating unintended atrocities.

Siri seeks no villains and engages in little politics here. There is just the absurd barbarity of a war to protect an immoral colonial enterprise that France will eventually have to abandon anyway. All that Siri can allow his characters is a degree of self-realization, all too often in their dying moments.

Siri's production team has given him a flawless canvas for this dark portrait. Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci's cinematography beautifully takes in an almost surreal landscape of forlorn barrenness while Alexandre Desplat's music catches the dangers and ominous mood felt by every living soul in that wasteland.

Les Films du Kiosque
Director: Florent-Emilio Siri
Writers: Patrick Rotman, Florent-Emilio Siri
Based on the novel by: Patrick Rotman
Producers: Francois Kraus, Denis Pineau-Valencienne
Director of photography: Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci
Production designer: William Abello
Costume designers: Laetitia Harvey, Mimi Lempicka
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editors: Olivier Gajan, Christophe Danilo
Lt. Terrien: Benoit Magimel
Sgt. Dougnac: Albert Dupontel
Commandant Vesoul: Aurelien Recoing
Capitaine Berthaut: Marc Barbe
Torturer: Eric Savin
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating