Monday, April 2, 2012

Julien Leclercq's THE ASSAULT shows a French anti-terrorism team in action

Based on the real-life hijacking (Christmas-time, 1994) of an Air France plane in Algeria, THE ASSAULT, from French filmmaker Julien Leclercq, proves an alternately slam-bang and quietly tension-heightened movie about how the French powers-that-be -- from the anti-terrorist force GIGN (more or less perhaps the equivalent of our SWAT teams), to the politicians and government workers -- do their part to first figure out how to assess the situation and then how to handle it fast and correctly. It ain't easy, and the resulting movie is frightening, intelligent, thoughtful and spellbinding, first moment to last.

The Assault is M. Leclercq's sophomore effort, and I am happy to say that it's ever better than his impressive debut feature, the sci-fi thriller Chrysalis. Practically the only thing the two films have in common is a color palette heavy on blue and grays, but even then Chrysalis is glossy, shiny and metallic, while The Assault is muted nearly to black-and-white, with only those blues (and a few other "almost" colors) coming occasionally to the fore. Here, Leclercq uses a near-documentary style, with a hand-held camera that sticks to close-ups during the major action scene, and has us seeing everything from the shooter's-eye view, only occasionally opening up into the greater distance. This can be confusing, but rightfully so, I think, because it's like being in the midst of the action, not knowing exactly what is happening where.

In any case, the filmmaker and his crew (cinematog-rapher Thierry Pouget and trio of editors (Mickael Dumontier, Christine Lucas Navarro and Frédéric Thoraval) manage to give us what we need to follow, even if we're kept off-balance -- not a bad position to find oneself in a film such as this.

From the beginning, which has our hero, GIGN-member Thierry (played in fine form by Vincent Elbaz, below), at a low point, due to his group's recent incursion which appears to have led to the slaughter of a child's family -- whether necessary or not, we don't know. Immediately after, we're with the terrorists, as they gear up for their attack on the target.

Their leader, played with Allah-level intensity and strength by Aymen Saïdi (two photos down), is a "believer" whose own mother, mid-film, cannot shake him from his path. "Don't you love me?" she pleads. "I love God more," is the stark reply. The movie should have you, rightly enough, disgusted with terrorism and even more so with this hate-filled, religious/fundamentalist approach to what in reality remains a major social problem of class and economics in nearly all countries. If you've got a gripe, boys, take care of it however you choose. But then take the responsibility for your actions yourself and leave Allah/God/Yaweh out of it, because clearly, as a man pointing a gun at others while using that supposed higher-power as your commanding officer, you haven't a clue who or what you're talking about. But I digress.

The Assault moves back and forth at a rapid pace between several parties: the terrorists on that airplane, the government officials whose responsibility this becomes, and the GIGN leader (played by Grégori Derangère) and his men, led by Thierry. Being part of these multiples points of view adds not only depth and texture to the film but excite-ment, as well, as the deadlines come and go and hostages are dispatched (in ways decent and not so). Working for the government intelligence are various people, but the one who appears to know the most and does the most is a young woman named Carole (Mélanie Bernier, shown above), clearly ambitious but also intelligent and somewhat street-smart about the terrorists and their organization. She also, among her peers, seems to be the only one who speaks and understands Arabic.

In her own way, Carole becomes as much of a hero as does Thierry, making decisions when the men around her are too frightened or worried about their own careers to act in a prompt and decisive fashion. This lends, but does not insist on, a feminist slant to the movie, and -- in addition to its implicit acknowledgment that French Algerians had/have legitimate complaints -- makes the movie genuinely progressive without ever bending over to the point at which it accept terrorism as a legitimate response.

Very much worth a viewing, The Assault, from Screen Media Films, opens this Friday, April 6, in a limited theatrical release. In New York City it will play at the Village East Cinema. I wish I could give you a link to other playdates around the country, but -- at least so far -- Screen Media has not provided anything like that.

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