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  • 15
  • Drama, History
  • 2007
  • 108 mins

Intimate Enemies

Intimate Enemies

Synopsis

Florent Emilio Siri's film about a beleaguered French outpost during Algeria's War of Independence addresses anxieties about occupation, past and present

About

Algeria's Kabylia region, 1959, and a small, heavily camouflaged outfit of French commandoes is being guided along a rocky hilltop by local Arab Rachid (Metalsi), when they spot some furtive movement in the bushes below and begin a fierce gun battle with the men in the shadows. Soon it is established that both conflicting parties in fact belong to the same side - but not before their leader, Lieutenant Constantin (Hlimi), has been killed by gunfire of the 'friendly' variety.

It is an apt opening to Florent Emilio Siri's Intimate Enemies, a film where friend will repeatedly prove difficult to distinguish from foe and where seemingly every military engagement takes as horrific a toll on the victors as on the defeated.

In the vicious fight against a local group of fellagha insurgents, Constantin's replacement is Terrien (Magimel), an idealistic volunteer who is quick to condemn the extreme interrogation techniques and extra-judicial executions regularly practised by his more battle-hardened colleagues like Sergeant Dougnac (Dupontel) or intelligence officer-cum-torturer Berthaut (Barbé).

The latter dismisses Terrien's moral qualms with the promise: "You'll come round - like we all have." And the next few months of brutal guerilla warfare will prove Berthaut right, as Terrien is gradually transformed from fresh-faced humanist and family man to ruthless killer. Not that the film in any way justifies or condones the murderous conduct of its characters; on the contrary, it dramatises the brutalising effects of war's realities on even the most ethically minded of participants, who, if they survive, must live forever after with the hideous physical and mental scars of their experiences.

Despite claiming victims in the hundreds of thousands, the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence has until recently remained something of a dirty little secret in the land of the colonial occupiers. Around the time of the conflict, French film censors reacted swiftly to even a hint that atrocities were committed by the nation's military, shelving Jean-Luc Godard's oblique Le Petit Soldat (1960) for three years and banning outright Gillo Pontecorvo's even-handed Italian/Algerian co-production The Battle Of Algiers (1966).

It was not until the 1970s that French cinema would begin to address the colonial war directly, with Claude Berri's Le Pistonné (1970), René Vautier's Avoir 20 Ans Dans Aurès (1972) and Yves Boisset's R.A.S. (1973) coming out in rapid succession (although notably only Vautier's film alluded to French acts of barbarity).

In 1999, for the first time France officially acknowledged that it had actually been engaged in a war (as opposed to a mere "public order operation") in Algeria, opening the gateway to a frank re-examination of the decolonisation process - and Intimate Enemies represents the first French feature film about the conflict to have emerged in this new period of openness.

"You can't fight barbarism with barbarism," asserts Terrien, and yet every outrage perpetrated by the fellaghas - sneak attacks, torture, murder and the collective punishment of villagers - will find its match in the actions of the French, with the local civilians or those Arabs who work alongside the colonial forces having their loyalties repeatedly tested.

Far from whitewashing one side in the Algerian War as righteous and demonising the other as monstrous, Intimate Enemies illustrates how fundamentally similar the two sides are to each other in motive, method and madness, and how easily - indeed, how naturally - they both become dehumanised in the escalating orgy of violence and paranoia.

Terrien's counter-insurgency operations may unfold in an isolated region of Algeria over a period of six months, but their dramas are made to encapsulate all the contradictions underlying eight years of futile struggle, while at the same time the film is at pains to align the war with other conflicts of occupation, before and since. "It's like Indochina, this is no conventional war, " says Berthaut, himself (like Dougnac) a veteran of France's ignominious entanglement in Vietnam - and his comparison is brought home (although not quite in the way he may have intended) when a fellagha unit is shown being incinerated with napalm bombs (euphemistically termed 'special drums' by the officers), or when a village is torched and its entire civilian population massacred by angry French soldiers.

Berthaut, fresh from torturing a prisoner, tells Terrien of his own membership of the underground resistance during the Second World War and his capture and torture at the hands of the Gestapo. As Saïd (Tazairt), one of the Arabs in Terrien's unit, puts it: "For the fellaghas, the French in Algeria are like the Germans for you".

Adding to the irony, we learn that Arabs fighting on both sides of the present conflict had been brave allies to the French in the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino. As the occupying forces beat and electrocute their way through one captive after another, they also torture themselves (literally, in one significant scene) with doubts as to who the real enemy is in so unjust a colonial war.

Of course, with its graphic presentations of 'justified' torture, Arab insurgency and constant ambush, there is one other major conflict that Intimate Enemies evokes and reflects, and that is the Coalition's 'War on Terror' - making Siri's film a haunting lesson in history of great relevance to the present day. It is also, thanks to the director's past experience with the pumped-up thrillers The Nest (2002) and Hostage (2005), a tense and atmospheric piece that presents the soldiers' uncertainty, confusion and fear with bleached-out, visceral grittiness. It may be a cliche that war is hell, but it is a cliche born of truth, and here realised with harrowing clarity.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Abdelhafid Metalsi, Hicham Hlimi, Aurélien Recoing, Eric Savin, Albert Dupontel, Lounès Tazairt, Mohamed Fellag, Benoît Magimel, Marc Barbé, Vincent Rottiers
  • Director: Florent Emilio Siri
  • Screen Writer: Florent Emilio Siri, Patrick Rotman
  • Producer: Denis Pineau-Valencienne, François Kraus
  • Photographer: Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci
  • Composer: Alexandre Desplat

In a nutshell

Almost without precedent in French cinema, Intimate Enemies exposes the horrific conduct of both sides in the Algerian War of Independence and its brutalising effect on all involved. It is a no-holds-barred history with alarming lessons for the current 'War on Terror'.

by Anton Bitel

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