“I hear you’ve been having qualms.”
The gritty, intense French film, Intimate Enemies (L’Ennemi Intime) from director Florent Emilio Siri examines the French-Algerian war through a single platoon. It’s 1959, and the FLN (National Liberation Front) is committed to a free Algeria without the French, and the French are committed to keeping Algeria as part of France. During the French-Algerian war, France conscripted 500,000 men to fight, and approximately 27,000 never came home (according to the film). On the Algerian side, figures range from 350,000 to 1.5 million.
The film begins when a cock-up involving friendly fire wipes out the platoon’s lieutenant, and then a replacement in the form of blonde, blue-eyed Lieutenant Terrien (Benoit Magimel) arrives. Terrien is married with a six-year-old son and in his civilian life he is an industrial designer. The film wisely doesn’t allow Terrien to be a complete idealist, but his lack of savagery still puts him at odds with both his men and his superiors.
Terrien’s right hand man is the seasoned battle veteran Sgt. Dougnac (Albert Dupontel)–a man who’s fought in Indochine, but some of the other officers are also WWII veterans, or resistance fighters, so they bring their own history of various conflicts to the sparse, harsh Algerian territory.
There are no major battles fought, just mission after mission into the “forbidden zone” to capture the elusive Slimane in this tense, action-packed film. The film doesn’t get preachy (and it really could given the material), instead the plot focuses on the sheer and utter mess of the French-Algerian war. For example, the platoon has its own Algerian fighters and its own scouts. Some of the Algerians who fight with the French have seen their entire families slaughtered by the FNL fellagha (outlaws), while another fought with the French in Italy during WWII. The film doesn’t show the FLN hardliners–instead we see the terrified villagers stuck in the middle of the ‘battlefield’ and who have to pay ‘revolutionary tax’ to the fellagha or risk violent death. There are several scenes with Algerians on both sides of the political divide facing each other and debating their choices, and for most of them, it seems to be a matter of chance which side they work for.
Several scenes cover the various arguments of those concerned in this convoluted mess, and since this is a colonial war, the arguments cover such issues as France granting independence to Morroco and Tunisia but not to Algeria. In another scene, one character compares the French occupation of Algeria with the German occupation of France. This has a particularly ironic twist as one character fought the Gestapo as a resistance fighter, and now he’s here in a foreign country supressing the locals. As the film continues the behaviour of the French devolves with foray after fruitless foray into the forbidden zone. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Vietnam and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s the terrain or the napalm. But then again perhaps it’s the slaughter of villagers caught in the middle or even the torture conducted by both sides to wring information from prisoners. Watching Intimate Enemies shows again how situations such as My Lai can occur.
Lt. Terrain has some harsh lessons to learn on his path to brutality, but learn them he does, and along the way he crosses the ‘immoral order’ divide. Deliberately hung out to learn about the brutality of the enemy, Terrain descends to a level of “barbarism” he could not have imagined. After all, “at 100 volts, the truth always comes out.”
The only thing we all have to cling to is our belief system–whatever that may be, but whatever morality Terrain tries to hang on to is ripped away or eroded in the impossible moral quagmire he faces. Terrain is confused by conflicting moral choices. What is his first priority? What is his mission? And does he have to abandon morality in order to fight the FLN? The film’s final message is that the entire war was a horrible mistake with thousands of wasted lives on both sides.
The film is based on the non-fiction book by Patrick Rotman.