Film Review: ‘Close Enemies’ (Frères Ennemis)

A gritty, accomplished but familiar crime drama with Reda Kateb and Matthias Schoenaerts, about brotherhood across the banlieue barricades.

David Oelhoffen
Matthias Schoenaerts, Reda Kateb, Adel Bencherif, Sofiane Zermani, Ahmed Benaissa, Nicolas Giraud, Omar Salim, Marc Barbe, Sabrina Ouazani, Gwendolyn Gourvenec, Astrid Whettnall (French, Arabic dialogue)

1 hour 51 miutes

David Oelhoffen’s last film, which played in competition in Venice in 2014, was called “Far From Men,” but was characterized by a lean, craggy, proto-Western narrative that metaphorically lashed its two stars, Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb, close together for the duration. By contrast, his newest feature, which also landed a competition slot in Venice, has the English title “Close Enemies” but keeps its tussling main characters — again each on opposite sides of the law, and this time played by Kateb and Matthias Schoenaerts — far apart for most of the running time.

That’s an irony it would be easy to dismiss if it didn’t also speak to this film’s fatal flaw: While the frictive tension is palpable between Schoenaerts’ bulked-up, doggedly loyal drug runner and Kateb’s soulfully buttoned-down, conflicted cop in their few scenes together, for the most part, their destinies run in frustrating parallel, never really entwining in a meaningful way. And so the mournful, mythic texture, moral knottiness and psychological richness attained in “Far From Men,” which was based on an Albert Camus story, eludes us in “Close Enemies” which was apparently based on every genre crime drama ever. At best, it’s a consummately well-crafted and committed version of a story we’ve seen play out dozens of times before.

It opens with a literal bang as Driss (Kateb), a narcotics officer working the beat of the suburban Parisian projects in which he grew up, leads a raid on an apartment in an unlovely high-rise which results in the arrest of several miscreants. One of them, being jostled into handcuffs, appeals pointedly to Driss’ racial loyalty. “I don’t speak Arabic,” Driss lies, turning back to stare impassively through the window.

Popular on Variety

Manu (Schoenaerts) is at that moment across town, kicking a football around with the son he dotes on and to whom he is teaching a few Arabic phrases. He and his best friend Imrane (Adel Bencherif) are on their way to form part of a raucous welcome committee for Nouri (Omar Salim), an associate who has just been released from prison. Later, at the party for Nouri’s homecoming held in the house of powerful clan patriarch and crime boss Raji (Ahmed Benaissa), Manu’s status as a beloved adopted member of this Moroccan/Algerian community is made clear, and the contrast between him and childhood friend Driss eloquently established. Manu is carefree and popular, always among people, the center of a tight knot of camaraderie; Driss, except for the daughter he is raising, is always alone. The interactions with his police colleagues are fractious and marked by tacit distrust, while a touching scene later on shows how even his parents have ostracized him, as an act of self-preservation.

But having established these oppositions, Oelhoffen’s script, co-written with Jeanne Aptekman, doesn’t let Manu and Driss meet face-to-face until the 45-minute mark, and only sporadically thereafter. In the meantime, the plot grinds mechanically into gear after a brilliantly well-staged kickstart in which Imrane, who is in fact snitching to Driss, is killed in a shockingly sudden drive-by during a big cocaine score. Manu narrowly escapes with his life, under a cloud of suspicion and bent on vengeance.

The craft is impeccable if again unfolding in a very familiar register, from Superpoze’s low-key buzzing electro score to DP Guillaume Deffontaines’ gritty, muscular camerawork, set in a Gillette-for-men palette of gun-metal greys and dull navy blues. The set pieces are exciting, the shoot-outs bloody, and the women sidelined as either liabilities, alibis, petitioners, or voices of conscience for their menfolk.

However, as though obeying the rules of the romantic comedy despite being laden with testosterone seriousness, the film really comes to life in the brief moments of contact between its two stars. Those barbed exchanges, freighted with betrayal, testing the bonds of brotherhood to see where they are broken and where they might be repaired, are the beating heart of Oelhoffen’s film, and Schoenaerts and Kateb’s superb flinty chemistry deserves more development than it can possibly get in a few sparky encounters. After just three films (his debut “In Your Wake” was a father-son redemption and reconnection tale), Oelhoffen’s wheelhouse is firmly established: two-hander dramas, set against a genre backdrop, in which old-fashioned masculine ideals and codes can be investigated and explored. There is certainly life in those old tropes yet, but if his aim with “Close Enemies” was to deliver more than a solid, grimily generic policier, he’d have done well to take heed of the old adage and keep these enemies closer still.

Film Review: 'Close Enemies' (Frères Ennemis)

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 1, 2018. Running time: 111 MIN. (Original title: "Frères Ennemis")

Production: (France-Belgium) A One World Films, BAC Films, Versus Production production. (Int'l Sales: BAC Films, Paris) Producer: Marc du Pontavice.

Crew: Director: David Oelhoffen. Screenplay: Oelhoffen, Jeanne Aptekman. Camera (color, widescreen): Guillaume Deffontaines. Editor: Anne-Sophie Bion. Music: Superpoze.

With: Matthias Schoenaerts, Reda Kateb, Adel Bencherif, Sofiane Zermani, Ahmed Benaissa, Nicolas Giraud, Omar Salim, Marc Barbe, Sabrina Ouazani, Gwendolyn Gourvenec, Astrid Whettnall (French, Arabic dialogue)

More Film

  • Utopia Hires Danielle DiGiacomo as Head

    Utopia Hires Danielle DiGiacomo as Head of Content (EXCLUSIVE)

    Film executive Danielle DiGiacomo is joining the upstart distribution company Utopia as head of content, Variety has learned. In this new role, she’ll be acquiring movies and developing release strategies for the boutique label, which last year released titles such as the drama “Mickey and the Bear” and Errol Morris’ political documentary series “American Dharma.” [...]

  • Persian Lessons Russian Cinema

    Berlin: 'Persian Lessons' Sold to Cohen Media Group for North America

    Cohen Media Group has acquired North American rights to the Holocaust drama “Persian Lessons,” following its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, where it has become a buzz title. The film was produced after the lead producers met at a Variety “10 Producers to Watch” event in Cannes in 2018, and decided to work [...]

  • SZA, Justin Timberlake Drop ‘The Other

    SZA and Justin Timberlake Drop First Song From 'Trolls World Tour'

    SZA and Justin Timberlake released “The Other Side,” the first song from the upcoming “Trolls World Tour” soundtrack. Of course, Timberlake’s Grammy-winning 2016 hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from the first “Trolls” film, was one of the most massive hits in a career filled with them, and like that song, this one involves co-writer Max [...]

  • German-french Producer Margaret Menegoz Receives the

    Cesar Academy Names Margaret Menegoz Interim President

    Producer and outgoing board of governors member Margaret Ménégoz has taken over as interim president of the Cesar Academy. The new president is to oversee a transition period until a new board is announced in April. Ménégoz, who has produced films for Michael Haneke, Eric Rohmer and Andrzej Wajda under her Les Films du Losange [...]

  • Berlin Alexanderplatz

    'Berlin Alexanderplatz': Film Review

    The twin pillars of Alfred Döblin’s epochal 480-page 1929 German-language novel and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s deeply influential 15-hour miniseries, first broadcast in 1980, together create an overarching shadow from which Burhan Qurbani’s relatively svelte three-hour contemporary reworking of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” struggles to escape. Although promising a deep-cut dash of contemporary topicality by reimagining the main [...]

  • There is No Evil

    Berlin: Banned Director Mohammad Rasoulof's 'There is No Evil' Lures Buyers (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mohammad Rasoulof’s “There is No Evil,” which is having its world premiere at the Berlinale on Feb. 28, has been sold by Films Boutique to major distributors across Europe. The sixth feature from Rasoulof, the critically acclaimed Iranian auteur facing censorship challenges back home, “There is No Evil” made a big impression on buyers and [...]

  • Bob Iger and Bob Chapek Disney

    How Disney Veteran Bob Chapek Emerged From Dark-Horse Status to Take CEO Job

    When the final act came in the corporate succession drama that has captivated Hollywood for years, it turned out that Bob Chapek was the logical candidate who was hiding in plain sight the whole time. The news that Chapek would succeed Bob Iger as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. hit the entertainment industry like [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content