Venice Film Festival: ‘Close Enemies’ Review

It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 75th Venice International Film Festival (29 August – 8 September), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.

Milo Garner reviews David Oelhoffen’s newest crime thriller.

Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way

In a genre of heartbreakers, there are few country songs that seep tragedy like Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman’. Two brothers who have fallen on opposite sides of the law, compelled by their natures to clash and clash, until they can clash no more. It isn’t just the friend-made-foe convention that makes it such an effectual story, but rather the moral quandaries it implies. The lines that must be crossed in the name of fraternity, the unsure grey between individual honour and wider ethical belief. It was Dante who decided that treachery served as the road to hell’s deepest circle, but the question remains: treachery to whom? The law, or kin? It is around that question Close Enemies finds its drama.

Oelhoffen’s crime thriller might not concern brothers, but it comes close enough by centering on old friends, at one point fellow criminals, one now reformed. They are linked not just by their past but their material condition – both are born of immigrant families, and both find themselves alienated for this fact. Manuel (Matthias Schoenaerts) laughs at a joke about Arabs begging on the street – the French are very giving if you are asking for money to go back home. Driss (Reda Kateb)  mentions in passing that only while working in narcotics can his face be an advantage rather than the opposite. That these themes are held at some distance is to the film’s benefit, and an example of Oelhoffen’s smart restraint – this is not a film about race in France so much as one that includes such issues in a wider context. It does not need to grandstand the facts; that they make up an organic part of the film’s environment is enough.

Another sharp decision is in the presentation of Manuel and Driss’ relationship to begin with. It is not exposited in lengthy dialogue, nor shown in flashback or prologue, nor discussed in serious detail. It only becomes evident after the film has already established its momentum, and even then only across a few lines and moments. A scene in which Driss glances over old photographs of the pair might cross this line, but I feel this is simply to ensure that everyone is on the same page. It is the sort of dynamic that can easily find itself overwrought – not so here. This extends to their shared scenes, in which the potential melodrama of suddenly invoking their old friendship is always avoided. Their bond is implicit, and feels all the more real for this fact; it does not need to be shouted or repeated.

But besides this relationship, the film is otherwise very much plot-driven. It moves at a consistent pace, never short on new revelations or developments to further it ahead. It is largely conventional in its series of betrayals and twists, but then this is a film that thrives in convention. A well-made genre picture should not be discarded for that fact – especially one so ably crafted as this. The camera is loose and active, handheld but always clear enough for the action. This is matched with the editing, which prefers extended shots to cutting in the manner of a similar Hollywood project. This permits an intimate tension at times, the diegesis trapped with its protagonist as he is stalked through the projects. Threats often appear offscreen, some never clarified; gunshots from afar are a recurring motif of this kind. Again, not an original innovation, but an effective example of a well-worn mould.

That would be an apt description for the film taken together, particularly as it reaches its pathos-soaked conclusion. All the beats are hit, but with consummate ability. It doesn’t ever threaten to be anything more than a simple police procedural, and really it doesn’t need to be. This is effective entertainment that justifies its context and content enough to carry a genuine weight and impact. Expect an American remake somewhere down the line.


Close Enemies (Frères ennemis) had its premiere at Venice Film Festival. It has yet to acquire a UK release date. Check out its trailer below:

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