Thursday, October 01, 2009

The French at War: Intimate Enemies

There is never much suspense in French war films, because we know the Gauls always lose. In this case, it is the 1954-1962 Algerian War. Yet, the grizzled veterans and idealistic recruits fight doggedly to protect France, which for most of them (and for many Algerians) very definitely includes Algeria in Florent Emilio Siri’s Intimate Enemies (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Lt. Terrien is a well-educated family man. Though he is not unsympathetic to the claims of the Algerians, he volunteered to serve in the North African conflict. Unfortunately, he starts his tour of duty under the worst possible circumstances, replacing an officer killed by friendly fire just days before he was due to ship home. Terrien is indeed in for a trial by fire, as he learns first-hand the terrorist tactics employed by the FLN (National Liberation Front).

The upright Terrien finds himself navigating a murky world, commanding a French unit that includes Muslim Algerian WWII veterans. Initially, he chafes at French interrogation practices, but the grisly remains of an FLN village massacre shakes him to his core. Though he clings to his convictions, his jaded Sgt. Dougnac and the mysterious Captain Berthaut of military intelligence try to convince him of the necessity of their aggressive measures.

As it turns out, Dougnac and Bertaut are old comrades from Indochina. Indeed, this seems like part of a deliberate strategy to draw parallels between Algeria and Viet Nam, and by extension Iraq, since the two countries are nearly synonymous to the contemporary left. However, Intimate’s on-the-ground war scenes are so compellingly realistic the contemporary political metaphors are largely lost in the “fog of war.”

Best known as the director of the Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell video game, Siri has a real talent for stage managing close quarter combat sequences. Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci’s cinematography also nicely captures the rugged beauty of the Algerian landscape, as well as the grungy day-to-day realities of war.

Audiences should intuitively know not to get too attached to any characters in films like Intimate that deliberately eschew traditional notions of heroism. Still, its ensemble cast is fairly strong, even if the individual characters mostly conform to predictable types. Benoît Magimel is quite credible as the conscience-stricken Terrien. Perhaps the most intriguing performance though, comes from Marc Barbé as the morally complex, but not necessarily amoral Captain Berthaut.

Clearly, Intimate wants to be considered relevant in light of current events. Of course, it never mentions what lies in store for Algeria following independence from France: two dictatorships and an extended civil war. Fortunately the political analogies are effectively subservient to a surprisingly well executed depiction of men at war. While far from perfect, Intimate has its gritty moments. It opens tomorrow (10/2) at the AMC Village 7.