Friday, October 2, 2009

The War Within

Albert Dupontel in INTIMATE ENEMIES (Photo: Outsider Pictures)

Intimate Enemies
Directed by
Florent Emilio Siri
With Benoît Magimel and Albert Dupontel

The French war in Algeria, the equivalent of our Vietnam War, has taken the French a long time to acknowledge its existence—and its futility.

Intimate Enemies ends with a title card stating that the French government finally acknowledged (in 1999) the conflict in which 27,000 French soldiers and between 300-600,000 Algerians were killed. That’s why this precise and gripping filmwhose title alludes to the similarities between the Algerian rebels and the French imperialists on the battlefieldis an important film: it depicts the horrific brutality waged by both sides with unflinching intensity.

Of course, other films have dealt with the conflict in Algeria, the standard bearer being Gilles Pontecorvo’s classic 1965 quasi-documentary The Battle of Algiers, which is still studied as a primer on how to deal with insurgencies. In 1992, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Undeclared War (in French, La Guerre sans Nom) allowed men who fought there the chance to talk about what they did and saw. Tavernier’s four-hour documentary, which comprises mostly talking heads, is one of the most emotionally involving and humanely anti-war films ever made, and it’s a shame that it’s barely known. (It’s unavailable on DVD in the U.S.)

Intimate Enemies is a more traditional war drama; whether it’s based on real characters and occurrences I don’t know, but it certainly has the feel of reality, of the authentic stench of war. It begins in 1959 with a violent episode in which a French garrison fires wildly and blindly at crouching soldiers in the distance, but immediately discovers it’s been shooting at friendly forces. Soon, we are introduced to the dueling protagonists: war-weary, battle-hardened Sergeant Dougnac (Albert Dupontel) and young idealist Lieutenant Terrien (Benoît Magimel), whose naïveté is bound to be shattered by the mayhem surrounding him.

Although schematic in structure—battle scenes are balanced by behind-the-lines sequences of the soldiers fighting among themselves—what distinguishes Intimate Enemies is its lack of jingoism from either side. Neither anti-French nor anti-Algerian, it’s anti-war through and through, showing how both sides perpetuate brutality, that the soldiers who perform horrible acts are not necessarily animalistic or immoral. This is powerfully clear in a scene in which Dougnac allows one of the captured enemy, an Algerian who had served with the French in World War II, to go free, only to see one of his men shoot the fleeing man dead. The soldier claims that the man was part of the anti-French fighters who slaughtered his family—so he felt that he had the right to shoot down the unarmed insurgent in cold blood.

Florent Emilio Siri directs with a sure handle on how warfare scrambles even the toughest of mindsets, either in the heat of battle, when no one knows exactly what’s happening, or in more intimate moments, when psyches crack at the least opportune of times. Cinematographer Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci conjures unnervingly volatile images, including the opening nocturnal shots of alien-looking landscapes in northern Algeria (actually shot in Morocco). And both lead actors, Magimel and Dupontel, acquit themselves admirably by differentiating what could have been mere symbolic types as flesh-and-blood characters. Although it’s hardly revealing anything new, Intimate Enemies starkly visualizes the brutality of war.

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