Dir: Florent Siri. France . 2007. 108 min.
A gritty and realistic depiction of a French platoon during the final stages of Algeria 's war of independence, Intimate Enemies is an assured and well-crafted drama that is sure to cause a stir in its native France . Featuring strong lead performances from the handsome Benoit Magimel and the rugged Albert Dupontel, it pulls no punches in its depiction of the gruesome nature of guerilla warfare and the ensuing decay of morality.
Retrospection over past wrongs is a hot topic in the movies, as are insurgency and counter-insurgency. Two million French conscripts served in Algeria, which makes for a large collective consciousness. Internationally, the trick will be in convincing diverse audiences to engage withthe historical incident.
To say Algeria was France 's Vietnam is an understatement (as well as an irony, given France 's role in Vietnam before the US engagement there). France colonized Algeria in 1830. Itbecame embedded in the French psyche. Less than ten years after French and Algerian soldiers fought together against the Nazis, they were fighting each other, hence the intimacy referred to in the title.
The film opens with a friendly-fire incident. A French patrol mistakes another for the enemy. The commanding officer who screwed up has paid for his mistake with his life. True to form, his incompetence is rewarded with a posthumous Legion d'Honour. It is the first of many acts of hypocrisy.
The dead man's replacement is Lt. Terrien (Magimel), whose striking good looks are matched by a strong moral code. He instantly clashes with the battle-hardened Sergeant Dougnac (Dupontel), whom experience has taught to choose the lesser of evils rather than risk the lives of his men.
Terrien's efforts to take the high road are rebuffed by Dougnac at every turn, and he is underminedby his lack of experience and his refusal to look the other way when a prisoner is tortured for information.
Director Florent Siri and screenwriter Patrick Rotman smartly force the audience to experience the war through Terrien's eyes. An innocent donkey caravan is shot-up, women are killed, Terrien screams bloody murder, but then Dougnac lifts the chadors of the corpses to reveal men in combat boots. He cracks open the clay water jars to expose the rifles hidden therein.
Unfolding over a series of raids, the film essentially observes Terrien as he is stripped of his humanity.
Siri has gone for a slick shooting style that makes liberal use of jump-cuts, and the images are drained of colour to reflect the scorching suffocating dryness of the desert, both of which give the film a distinctive tone, especially in the nerve-racking fire-fight sequences.
But its cycle of raids and the ensuing despair begins to feel repetitive. Whereas the audience can relate with Terrien's tangible learning curve as a soldier and commander, his emotional disintegration is harder to convey.
Ultimately, Siri spends too much time watching Terrien brood and not enough exploring the margins, particularly the Algerians among the French forces who have joined the fight against the insurgence and find themselves in an even less tenable situation.
In one key scene, a captured Algerian insurgent addresses such a man. Asking for a cigarette, he lights one end and announces 'This is France '. He then lights the other end, saying 'This is Algeria '. He points at the fingers holding the cigarette's middle. 'This is you.' The film might have done better if it had convinced the audience to be those fingers holding the middle.
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