A fictive combat tale inspired by scenarist Patrick Rotman’s same-titled nonfiction book and documentary, Florent-Emilio Siri’s “Intimate Enemies” provides a credibly gritty microcosm of French troops’ experiences during the 1954-62 Algerian War. Pic takes no political standpoint beyond the usual war-is-hell, admitting that France’s bloody attempt to hold onto its colony was a doomed waste of many lives on both sides. Pic works best as a straightforward portrait of a dirty ground conflict fought in unfamiliar territory. Visceral and engrossing, if not ultimately a first-rank war film, “Enemies” should do well at home and attract decent export interest.
His action chops proven by “The Nest” and English-language debut “Hostage” with Bruce Willis, Siri proves equally adept at capturing the tension and sudden chaos of field skirmishes. French soldiers here find themselves at a perpetual disadvantage, negotiating rocky, mountainous, often exposed terrain the rebels know very well, with the locals mostly rooting against them.
Major wrinkle — though more could have been made of it — is the presence of several Algerian men in the platoon who, for whatever reason, have chosen to sign up with their country’s oppressor. These collaborators had a heavy price to pay if captured by insurgent fellow countrymen.
Another intriguing, if murkily developed idea is that some of these enlistees might serve as rebel moles; at various points, the platoon is ambushed in ways suggesting its plans are being leaked to the enemy.
Set midway through the conflict in 1959, the screenplay introduces Sgt. Terrien (Benoit Magimel) as an ill-equipped replacement for a recently killed officer. Naive and unschooled about local customs, perils and potential deceptions, he’s a high-minded humanist whose qualms about morally unacceptable tactics are viewed with disdain by pitiless senior officers, many grunts and his new right-hand man, Sgt. Dougnac (Albert Dupontel).
“You can’t fight barbarism with barbarism,” Terrien says, trying to stop interrogative torture and gratuitous executions of captured suspects. But the fellaghas (fighters for Algeria’s National Liberation Front) practice even more brutal tactics, at one point slaughtering an entire village that was raided by the French, simply to set a fearsome example.
As a series of missions (which divide the story into chapters via onscreen titles) drastically thins the company’s personnel, Terrien comes unglued. It often falls to case-hardened Dougnac to push matters onward when his immediate superior stalls, although a late scene reveals he isn’t immune from the agonies of a troubled conscience, either.
Subsidiary characters, both soldiers and locals, are generally well etched, although some figures inevitably produce a “Who’s that again?” shrug when they become casualties. Battle scenes are moderately scaled, guerrilla-style ones, particularly vivid in one attack when the enemy turns out to be waiting above their quarry, and another set in a forest where machine-gun fire topples whole trees onto trapped men.
Committed perfs pull short of going over the top, despite moments of individual panic and hysteria. Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci’s widescreen lensing captures the dramatic landscapes in colors slightly drained to match the khaki and protags’ dust-covered skin. Alexandre Desplat’s score is another plus in an expertly turned package.