Wednesday, September 30, 2009

INTIMATE ENEMIES plumbs the French-Algerian War; Q&A w/Florent Emilio Siri

An excellent (anti)war film, Florent Emilio Siri’s INTIMATE ENEMIES is filled with ironies and opposites as it tracks the (mis)adventures of a platoon of French soldiers during the French-Algerian War. Divided into segments, each one covering a specific mission, the movie intro-
duces us to a smart and decent rookie

lieutenant, played by one of France’s finest actors, Benoît Magimel (A Girl Cut in Two, The Piano Teacher), and his dour, knowledgeable sergeant who’s perfectly content to kill and torture when necessary, played by the equally fine Albert Dupontel (the current Paris and Avenue Montaigne).

Siri (shown at right) has made a couple of fine actions movies: The Nest (rent this one -- one of the best of its genre in the past two decades) and the under-rated Hostage. With Intimate Enemies, he brings his action skills to the war front and the results are impressive. Action scenes are staged with immediacy, flair, and sometimes ugly surprise (who knew that the French used napalm in Algeria?), but it is the quieter moments, often concerning how these men come to terms with what they've done and are doing that register with sometimes shattering impact. How they punish themselves -- physically, mentally -- for what they are forced to do is particularly grueling to experience.

The beginning of the film is given over to an interesting build-up of situation and character. Then, when a new head of intelligence arrives, things get serious. To torture or not is discussed crisply, smartly, believably, and there are comparisons along the way between the French in Algeria and the Germans during WWII. The ironies and heartbreak of a colonial war are brought home most strongly in the scene of an execution of an FLN member who had served France in WWII -- and received a medal for his bravery on behalf of his country.

How war destroys men -- from without and within -- is brought home with striking clarity and strength by Siri, co-writer Patrick Rotman and their entire cast. It easy to understand why this film was a critical and popular success in France. Would that it could be on our shores, too. Unlikely, however, as war films of late -- about a war as unpopular as any that America has fought in the past century -- have tanked right, left and center. But at least Intimate Enemies is getting a small theatrical release and, one hopes, another on DVD. It opens Friday, October 2, in New York City at the AMC Loews Village VII.


TrustMovies spoke with director Florent Emilio Siri from his home in France today, asking a few questions about his film, its history -- and French-Algerian history. Herewith are his answers, and there are some spoilers ahead, so maybe see the movie first, then read:

TrustMovies: What’s your background? Are you of Algerian descent?

Florent Emilio Siri: No, I’m not. But I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of Algerians immigrants. The Algerian War is still a taboo subject in France. There is really nobody that talks about this. In my genera-
tion, between the ages of 30 and 45, there is something that, even now we cannot understand. There is nothing about this war in our history books, and it is not talked about in school. France is very proud of its involvement in World War I and even Would War II. But not of Algerian War. It was not even a war - just a “police action.” In the end, France lost Algeria – which had been French for over 100 years.

In my generation, we grew up with a different culture. My father is Italian and my mother French. I grew up in a neighborhood full of immigrants. In our school we had a lot of people coming from Africa and North Africa.

The Algerian War actually began in 1945, when the French celebrated the liberation from WWII. A lot of Algerians took to the streets to celebrate the end of the war, and they raised the Algerian flag, which the French did not like. In the ensuing attack, they killed almost 3,000 people.

This is why I wanted to make this movie. I didn’t know a lot about the war, and I wanted to find out. My scriptwriter Patrick Rotman had worked with Bertrand Tavernier, and between Rotman and Magimel and me, we tried to find a producer. We didn’t have much money, so we shot in 48 days for about $10 million dollars. Everyone did this film for half their usual salary, and I believe that they all felt we had to make this movie

Was your prowess as an action movie director of good use to you in filming a war movie?

It was useful because we had to shoot quickly. And there is some similarity in the genres. I had to use violence to show violence. The movie is very violent, I wanted to shoot from the POV of the soldiers to show how scared and traumatized they were. So this ability was very useful.

What were the major differences in making a French action film like The Nest and in making an American one like Hostage?

It’s less formatted in France because you are free to do whatever you want. You can even kill the hero! Hostage was built for Bruce Willis, whereas The Nest was a movie for me. After my first movie - - A Minute of Silence, which we did for only $1 million -- I was frustrated because the movie was only screened in one theater, and the subject was very important for me, very personal. I shot it in 30 days, and had to shoot some scenes at night, and I knew I could do better. The Nest was a kind of movie we never saw before in France. I grew up seeing all these American western and action movies, so finally I said to myself, “Why can’t we do that here?

After The Nest was screened was the American Film Market, I got a lot of calls from very important people – Bruce Willis, John Woo, Michael Douglas -- and, although the other projects never took off, that is how Hostage happened.

The IMDB Notes that Splinter Cell, which you were involved in, was a video game. Do you have any desire to do more of these?

But I only worked on a four-minute short movie which became the intro for the game. Before I did films, I did a bunch of rap videos. When you are a young director, nobody is going to give you a film, so instead I made music videos. It was interesting to learn how to direct in 3-D, but, really: I am not coming from video games. In fact, Eric Rohmer was one of my teachers of film!

Any plans to return to the USA and film again? What about A.K.A., which I noticed mentioned on the IMDB?

A.K.A. was a movie I was developing with a French producer about a con man in Hollywood. But the script is not there, so I am not going to make that one, it seems. I have a lot of propositions for the U.S. but you never know. There, they see me inside a box: only action movies. They wanted me to direct another Die Hard, but I wanted to come back to France to make my Algerian war film.

I believe that all the best war movies are anti-war. How could they not be, since war is so horrible. In Intimates Enemies, we see how war has changed the Magimel character in that he is unable to go home and instead must drive by his family apartment rather than go up and be with his family. He has been destroyed, on some level, by what he has done. His death later is simply the final destruction. Does this make sense to you?

Yes. He is just going along, like someone in the landscape. The movie postulates that he is somebody like us, like you or me, looking at this war. If you were there, you would be like the Magimel character, Lieutenant Terrien , trying to protect the population, beginning with your sense of idealism. Then, step by step, we understand how the cynicism of the war changes a person until someone who is against torture will become a torturer.

Because the French-Algerian war still festers in France, did your film bring the war back to French consciousness?

Well, I hope it did. We tried. We wanted our audience to identify with Lieutenant Terrien ‘s character from the beginning, and this is bizarre in a way because suddenly, we must ask ourself, Would I make the same choices as he did? I hope the movie, from ths aspect is good, because the audience is inside this war with this character.

So what is next on your agenda?

I am now making a movie about an escape from Devils Island with Benoît Magimel and Jean Dujardin.

When will it be released?

In 2011. We’re shooting in Mexico, we hope in June of 2010.

(All photos are from the film itself, except those of M. Siri.)


Ray Errol Fox said...

"I believe that all the best war movies are anti-war. How could they not be, since war is so horrible."

Bravo, Jim. Well stated. I looked to see if you had reviewed "Lebanon." I hope you will and will write about it--I'd love to know your thoughts.

I am in admiration of the coverage you are giving worthy films.

Best -


James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Ray. And yes, I plan to see LEBANON, though I was not able to get to its screenings during the NY Film Fest. I hope it will soon find a distributor, if it has not already.

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