'Sympathy for the Devil' ('Sympathie pour le diable'): Film Review

Sympathy for the Devil Still - Publicity - H 2019
Shayne Laverdière/Monkey Pack Films/Gofilms
A worthy addition to the war correspondents genre.

Niels Schneider, Vincent Rottiers and Ella Rumpf star in this debut feature about the travails of French journalist Paul Marchand during the Bosnian War.

In Franco-Canadian director Guillaume de Fontenay’s compelling feature debut, a reckless reporter finds himself in Bosnia during the long and deadly Siege of Sarajevo, which began in 1992 and lasted for nearly four years. 

Based on the experiences of French war correspondent Paul Marchand, Sympathy for the Devil (Sympathie pour le diable) provides a firsthand account of the siege through the eyes of a young rebel who, as he spent more time on the ground, began to blur the lines between journalism and intervention, putting himself and others at risk. Released in France after making the festival rounds, where it picked up a few prizes, the film could see more play abroad via worldwide streaming services.

Marchand (Niels Schneider), who was in his early 30s when he traveled to Bosnia to cover the war for radio stations like France Info, Radio Canada and the RTBF, looks like he could be a founding member of New Order, The Specials or some sort of post-punk ensemble. He sports thick glasses and a black beanie, favors a bomber jacket and white shirts buttoned all the way up to the collar, and can usually be seen with a cigar hanging from his mouth.

Despite his rude boy looks, Marchand is a drop-dead serious chronicler of conflict who had previously spent time in Beirut during the 1980s. In the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, which is surrounded by Serb forces that are constantly firing off mortar shells or taking out bystanders with snipers, Marchand is part of a coterie of foreign correspondents waylaid at the Holiday Inn while the war wages on around them. When a bombing or shooting kills civilians in town, the journos race off with their cameras, microphones and notepads to capture the aftermath. And when they’re not doing that, they’re drinking, smoking or killing time however they can.

Adapted by de Fontenay, Guillaume Vigneault and Jean Barbe from Marchand’s 1997 book, the script is peppered with moments of camaraderie and competition among the reporters, as well as scenes of extreme tension when they head out in groups to the war zone. Faithfully re-creating Sarajevo’s infamous “sniper alley,” where anyone could be picked off by Serbian gunmen hiding in the surrounding woods and hilltops, the director offers up several hair-raising sequences of Marchand and photographer Vincent (Vincent Rottiers) driving like daredevils down the city’s desolate main road, the words “Don’t waste your bullets. I am immortal” brashly taped to the body of their car.

The excellent Schneider, who broke out onto the scene in Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats, portrays Marchand as a pure romantic — there are echoes here of French director Xavier Beauvois’ 1995 drama of romanticism and the Bosnian War, Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die — as a guy who’s fearless in the face of death and delivers his accounts of devastation with a rare brand of sangfroid. But unlike his fellow newsmen (they are mostly men), Marchand grows too attached to Sarajevo to let go, especially when he falls for a beautiful local fixer, Boba (Ella Rumpf), whose family is stuck with her behind enemy lines.

That latter plotline feels like a familiar genre trope in a movie that mostly avoids clichés about love and war. At the same time, the romance between Boba and Marchand brings things efficiently to a head in the last act, when the latter is forced to choose between his career and the victims he observes on a daily basis. We’ve seen this type of dilemma before (most recently in Camille, the story of French war photographer Camille Lepage, who was killed a few years ago in Africa), but the issues are convincingly depicted against a backdrop that’s been re-created in utter detail.

De Fontenay has a long résumé making commercials and brings a considerable skill set to his first feature, opting for a gritty you-are-there approach that reinforces the journalistic nature of his narrative. Shooting in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio that recalls TV news reportages of the epoch (such as the famous Frontline piece Sarajevo: The Living and the Dead), veteran cinematographer Pierre Aïm (La Haine) uses lots of desaturated images and handheld camerawork to follow Marchand as he scrambles through the bombed-out city to cover his stories.

Exteriors were shot in the actual Sarajevo, which still shows battle scars from a conflict that ended over two decades ago, in a humanitarian disaster that remains fresh on many of our minds.

Production companies: Monkey Pack Films, Go Films, Logical Pictures
Cast: Niels Schneider, Vincent Rottiers, Ella Rumpf, Clément Métayer, Arieh Worthalter
Director: Guillaume de Fontenay
Screenwriters: Guillaume Vigneault, Guillaume de Fontenay, Jean Barbe, inspired by the book by Paul Marchand
Producers: Jean-Yves Robin, Marc Stanimirovic, Nicole Robert, Pascal Bascaron
Executive producers: Ludovic Naar, Adis Djapo
Director of photography: Pierre Aïm
Production designers: Sanda Popovac, Patric Valverde
Costume designers: Sanja Dzeba, Cécile Guignard Rajot
Editor: Mathilde Van de Moortel
Casting directors: Antoinette Boulat, Timka Grin, Sebastian Moradiellos
Sales: Charades

In French, English, Serbian, Croatian
100 minutes