Last week, French filmmaker David Oelhoffen’s latest project, Close Enemies (Frères Enemis) enjoyed its US premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018. To take a closer look at the crime thriller about the importance of family and the emotional ties that bind, Daily Dead recently caught up with Oelhoffen for an email Q&A in which he discussed the themes he explored throughout Close Enemies, collaborating with his co-writer Jeanne Aptekman as well as the film’s co-stars Matthias Schoenaerts and Reda Kateb, and bringing his Parisian-set story to international audiences.

Can you talk about the inspirations behind the story and your experiences with the writing process as you were working with Jeanne Aptekman?

hoffen: My initial desire was to film criminal life, not to film fantasies of criminal life. I talked with important drug traffickers, thanks to a friend of mine, who is a lawyer. I tried to understand how concretely their lives were organized. It turned out that the gap with the usual idea of ​​criminal life was huge. Lots of waiting, lots of fear, and little romanticism. The project was born. It made me want to see this same reality in the other side of the law, the police. I co-wrote a few years ago L’Affaire SK1, a film about Guy Georges, the first serial killer listed in France, directed by Frédéric Tellier. I kept a lot of contacts in the police, and I talked with them again for Frères Enemis. So, I had a pretty unique documentation on both sides of the drug traffic barrier. That was my main inspiration.

Then we started to build a story on this theme with Jeanne Aptekman. We tried to bring to these characters, whether they are simple commuters, drug traffickers, or policemen, the same nuances as in any drama. Intimate, political, and family conflicts may crystallize in different ways in affluent neighborhoods or brotherhoods, but they have the same complexity everywhere. I try in each of my films not to simplify them.

For as much as this is a story about these criminal activities, this also taps into these themes of brotherhood, loyalty, and family. Can you discuss exploring those ideas and utilizing them alongside some of the crime thriller tropes we see utilized in the film?

David Oelhoffen: My first film, Nos Retrouvailles, already dealt with loyalty and family. It tells the story of a young man who has to build his life against his father. In Far From Men, the two characters must resist community confinement. In Frères Enemis, the characters have to fight against the group which is supposed to define them, to protect them, to give them an identity. Driss, the policeman, rejected his North African and suburban origins. Manuel, the thug, is someone who has found his identity in a family that is not his. I like to deal with this tension between individual freedom and the circles to which we belong: family, couple, social class, territory. A dysfunctional geographical territory like a project housing can be a protection and a confinement. It is at the same time a refuge and a prison. In my opinion, the crime thriller is a good way to make these themes more intense and spectacular. But what interests me is how you feed the characters, and the tensions and intimate issues they experience thanks to the crime story.

Matthias and Reda have a lot of back-and-forth in this film, and we see, as this story unfolds, how the events of this story affect them both in somewhat similar (but still different ways). Can you talk about their characters and working with these actors in order to find the humanity in their respective roles, since that’s what helps ground them in this film?

David Oelhoffen: Matthias and Reda are two great actors. Reda has an incredible power of incarnation. He is sensitive, intelligent, open. To play, he goes back and forth between intelligence and intuition. I almost always rely on his intuitions to try to find a way to be more consistent, more fair, or more true to reality (which was what we were trying to do). It was necessary to embody this policeman who returns to his suburb and begins a kind of investigation on himself. 

Matthias is physically very impressive, and he's absolutely not afraid to be fragile. Manuel, the character he embodies, is perfectly adapted to this violent life, but his identity is built on faults that he discovers gradually. We understand that he grew up alone. He has found a cocoon, a Moroccan clan in which he is perfectly integrated. But he is very naive concerning the bonds inside this family. Matthias brings at the same time a very impressive physical insurance, and a hyper-sensitivity.

So, how I work with such actors? By giving as much space and freedom as possible to them, in order to find altogether more nuances and complexity in their characters—changing dialogues, body language, or even whole scenes with them before and during the shooting. Actors are partners, not puppets.

This is a film that has now played at Venice and Fantastic Fest. How does it feel to be able to share your vision with audiences around the world?

David Oelhoffen: It's of course very pleasant to show our work to an international audience, and it's extremely important for me to have the support of festivals such as Venice or Fantastic Fest—pleasant, but important for the future and scary, too. I always have the fear that the film will not be completely understood out of the French context.

What has been your biggest takeaway from the experience of making Close Enemies, whether it’s something that affected you personally or professionally, or maybe in both ways?

David Oelhoffen: There are two scenes that made me very happy during shooting. The return of Driss to his parents and the return of Manuel to his ex-wife [played by Gwendolyn Gourvenec]. These are two important moments where the characters shuffled in their identity to return to the people they love. A shoot is almost always a stressful race against time or doubts, but those two moments were magical. They were two sparks of love.


Keep an eye on our Fantastic Fest 2018 hub to keep up to date on all of our live coverage from Austin!

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.