Mean-streets Belgian-French crime drama Close Enemies (original title Frères Ennemis) follows two men who grew up together in a French banlieue suburb made up of Moroccan/Algerian families. They took very different paths in their lives. Driss (Reda Kateb) became a narcotics police officer investigating drug traffickers and Manuel (Matthias Schoenaerts) became one of those drug traffickers.
At the outset, Driss (Kateb), raids an apartment in a ratty high-rise. One of the dealers being arrested recognizes Driss and tries to appeal to their shared history. Driss lies in reply “I don’t speak Arabic.” At the same time Manuel and his close-knit drug clan are meeting one of their crew, Nouri (Omar Salim) as he’s being released from prison, taking him to a huge family party to celebrate.
The firestorm ignites when Manuel and his friend Imrane (Adel Bencherif) are attacked on the street while leaving to deliver drugs. A gunman fires into the car, killing Imrane. Manuel barely escapes and events are set in motion that draw Driss and Manuel into a conflicted tangle as they try to reconcile past with present.
Driss blurs many ethical lines as he plays both ends against the middle, trying to keep Manuel alive and out of jail, while at the same time intent on using him to bust his drug family.
“…Driss became a narcotics police officer investigating drug traffickers and Manu became one of those drug traffickers…“
The men live in different worlds. Driss is not fully accepted among the police because of his background, reviled in his home neighborhood, and estranged from his family for being a policeman. Manuel, conversely, is surrounded by friends and extended family, his motivations are his son, his ex-wife, and his brothers-in-arms in the drug trade. For the crime family depicted, the emphasis is more on family than crime, with some notable exceptions.
Director David Oelhoffen is making a career specializing in intense storytelling and, as in his 2014 film Far From Men, Close Enemies also highlights the culture clash between French speaking Muslims and non-Muslims.
As Driss and Manuel both angle toward figuring out who killed Imrane and why, the action ramps up to a bloody climax where the truth is revealed. The dramatic tension is grim and relentless as the film grinds on, sometimes more anxious than entertaining, but the conceits of the movie are beautifully executed.
Close Enemies (2019) Directed by David Oelhoffen. Written by David Oelhoffen, Jeanne Aptekman. Starring Reda Kateb, Matthias Schoenaerts, Adel Bencherif. Close Enemies screened at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
7 out of 10