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VENICE 2018 Competition

David Oelhoffen • Director

“There is nothing romantic about a criminal life”


- VENICE 2018: Returning to the Lido with the thriller Close Enemies, French director David Oelhoffen flirts with the genre but ultimately chooses to keep things real

David Oelhoffen  • Director
(© La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

With the help of recognisable actors Matthias Schoenaerts and Reda Kateb, cast as criminal Manuel and cop Driss, in Close Enemies [+see also:
film review
interview: David Oelhoffen
film profile
David Oelhoffen tells the story of friends turned enemies in a thriller that, instead of slick action and MTV-style editing, offers a realistic insight into tight-knit communities from the outskirts of Paris. The movie is screening in competition at the Venice Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: In Close Enemies, you decided to stay in one neighbourhood; crucial events take place in tiny flats and narrow passageways. In the end, it feels like a small-scale tragedy.
David Oelhoffen:
The starting point was to film as realistically as possible. I wanted to respect these places the way they are. In those areas, on the outskirts of Paris, the flats are often very small, and the corridors are packed with people. It’s a claustrophobic place where you can easily feel under pressure. In order to breathe, my characters have to get up on the roof. 

What got you interested in that particular community? 
I wanted to mirror reality as much as possible, and in real life, drug trafficking is usually managed by the Moroccans – especially when it comes to hashish. It’s a very warm, welcoming community where family bonds are usually very strong. That’s why it’s so appealing to Manuel – he is lonely and no longer has a family of his own. And that’s why when he finally experiences deception, it makes the blow that much harder.

Would you say that these two characters come together only after they both experience rejection? Driss left his community a long time ago, whereas for Manuel, it’s quite recent. But it allows them to finally understand each other.
That was the core of the film: the contrast that exists within our inner identity, and the way we are perceived by our community and the outside world. In the case of Driss, he denied his background by distancing himself from both his roots and the place he comes from. But he keeps coming back! Manuel is the opposite. He didn’t choose to be without a family, and now he is struggling to find a sense of belonging again. In a way, they are both survivors who are trying to do their best. I didn’t realise this beforehand, but there are some similarities between this movie and my previous one, Far From Men [+see also:
film review
film profile
[also starring Reda Kateb], which also saw two people who had somehow been uprooted from their community forge a strange bond.

You keep mentioning this attempt to reflect reality, and instead of rapid editing, you opted for handheld shots. But aren’t thrillers expected to be flashy?
When you are dealing with a film that flirts with a genre, your main concern is to avoid the clichés. For me, the best way to do that was to hang onto reality based on what I wanted to say about these characters and what I have learnt personally. That’s the reason why whenever I was shooting an action scene, I wanted to avoid any lyricism or romanticism. All of the violent scenes in my film are short and dry. There is nothing romantic about a criminal life. It’s a shitty life, and that’s what I wanted to convey. 

But these men are both so loyal! There is a certain romanticism to that. 
It’s true – to Manuel, loyalty is very important. The problem is that he doesn’t know whom he needs to be loyal to. He is not romantic – he is naïve. His need for love and recognition is such that he allows himself to be exploited and abused by others, and he can’t even admit that. He is in denial, and everything he does, he does because he still hopes he will win back forgiveness. That’s his weakness, and that’s what I find touching. It helped that he was played by Matthias, a very strong, muscular man who doesn’t have a problem with showing fragility. 

Given that the entire story revolves around their interactions, how did you want them to play against one another?
The difficulty was in finding the right balance between the two, especially in the editing room. I wanted to show their chemistry, but with my editor, we were very careful to always put them on the same level. The first time they see each other, in this narrow corridor in front of the lift, they clash. Most of the time, they seem to be fighting or getting ready to get into a brawl. But even then, you see that, deep down, there is still some love and affection. There are moments in our lives that we can’t forget, like the faces of our childhood friends, for example. That’s why in the film I show photographs of them as kids. Seeing that they used to be friends before… It’s melancholic. They were innocent once, you know? And then life got the best of them.

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