Matthias Schoenaerts and Reda Kateb interview on crime drama Close Enemies (Frères ennemis)
Close Enemies (Frères ennemis), the latest film by French auteur David Oelhoffen, follows two childhood friends who chose very different paths in life. While Manuel (Matthias Schoenaerts) descends into a life of crime, Driss (Reda Kateb) opts to become a cop. The feature charts the reunion of the estranged pair as they come to realise that they share more than just a mutual hatred: they are both dedicated to the suburbs in which they were raised.
We spoke to the lead actors at the 75th Venice Film Festival, where they discussed the similarities between their characters and the importance of fatherhood both in the film and their own lives.
Reda, do you feel comfortable with the ethnic implications of your character?
Reda Kateb: I would never choose a comfortable character to play; if I were offered one I would probably turn it down. The ethnic, cultural background “issue”, in my case I’m a policeman who wants to catch criminals with the same background. By doing this he kind of tries to escape his origin. But that background catches up with him and this safe way out becomes his own trap. It’s a new policeman figure; we’ve never seen that in France on a big screen. Someone coming from the suburbs that tries to rebel against his background and that’s the very core of this film. My criteria in choosing characters is looking for something new that I never played before and that I haven’t seen before in cinema and it’s never comfortable. I like the imbalance and complexity of that, and this one each character is very complex.
Matthias, it’s not the first time you’ve played a criminal – for instance in Racer and the Jailbird.
Matthias Schoenaerts: When people say criminal that already implies a category. A criminal is still an individual, who has his own journey, personality, desires, flaws and fears. I think the difference between this character and the one in Racer is that the social context is not the same, and it’s also a different universe within the crime universe. The drug criminality is also implemented in something much bigger than robbers and it has a much larger resonance to a world problem than bank robbers. There’s almost something – I don’t want to romanticise it – heroic to a bank robber. It takes insight and preparation. Drug criminality relates to a social, political and historical, worldwide phenomenon which is much more complex than the other universe. This is just a small aspect of the drug problem, but it’s transposable to all layers of society. I never thought of portraying a criminal, this guy sells drugs and it’s considered to be a criminal act, the general perception. When I go into this guy I wonder who this guy is. There’s the context and there are his actions. He is in a mouse trap. He knows he’s going to die, the net is closing in. That guy is also trying to survive and work out who he is in the world. Trying to raise his kids and be a partner to his wife but that’s not working. He’s not being a decent dad, he’s not being a great partner and on top of that in his profession, everything is going wrong. For me, that’s something I can relate to and identify with.
The relationship between your two characters lies at the heart of the film. How did you work on it?
RK: We didn’t think about the friendship between the characters before shooting. How can we find this kind of chemistry together? We didn’t ask ourselves that question. On set, the way we work together, the script: the chemistry came about on set every day, in the moment. We never thought about how we could look like friends or enemies. Even when we played them, sometimes you think – now we look like enemies – but in that moment they are the most friendly. And the opposite. We wanted to get surprised by what happened in that moment. The director was doing the settings and mixing.
How would the film be different if you swapped the roles?
MS: We’ll never know. But the roles are invertible; he could have ended up on my side and me on his side. How would the film look? As actors, we’ll never know. Actually, those characters are mirrors to each other. They are trapped on different sides of the track but in the same f***ing hell.
But it would have been a different story, because it would have been easier for your character to be a policeman?
MS: That’s true. There’s a logic that my character would have been more suitable.
RK: Something maybe uncomfortable for the character himself is the loneliness of my character. The gangsters are warm, hang out together with their families; you feel like they are never alone. With cops, you feel there’s something austere and lonely – more than lonely – about them.
MS: What’s also important, and we talked about it earlier, is the determinism of this universe. You say: “People have a choice”. Well, to some extent. But some people don’t have a lot of choices, and in this universe, if you make a certain choice you don’t get a second chance. If you are a drug dealer, you can’t be a cop, and if you are a cop you can’t become a drug dealer. It’s gonna be the end of it. It’s an important aspect of that universe, which is often this is glorified in movies, turning these characters into heroes, because they are absolute about what they stand for but here we go into the opposite, about the tragedy of these characters. These are sad individuals, both of them. There’s nothing heroic about them. There’s nothing to be glorified about being a gangster, nor about the cop. You feel for them. That’s what we tried to look for. We didn’t try to make the toughest bad guy and the coolest cop. They are two lost individuals trying to find a way to live in this mess.
So it’s a film about the need to belong?
MS: Yes there’s the need for collectivity. To have the need for a collective and find your individuality within that. Because without that you have nothing to bounce back from.
RK: The first title of the movie was territories. How can you escape from one territory? For me, living in France, it’s speaking about France today and the identity problems. And on which side you want to be. Human beings are more complicated than that.
What do you remember about your beginnings with your father and when did you become confident about acting?
MS: I don’t know!
RK: We both started with our fathers actually. Maybe we have that I common.
MS: Actually, your dad is my dad! [Actors laugh and hug]
RK: I am your father.
Were your fathers worried about you starting this career?
RK: My father was very worried when I chose to act. And just before he left this world he was very confident. He knew it was my dream. But at the beginning, me as a father, if my child wanted to be an actor, I think I would be scared. I wouldn’t tell him: let’s do that. It’s only the wealthy people who seem to be very happy and proud of their children who become actors. I come from a tougher environment and I would wish a sounder job for my children.
Matthias, you thought that from the beginning?
MS: It’s so far away, I don’t know if I’m telling myself the real story or not. When you grow up you detach yourself and rebel against the father figure and if you are lucky enough you reconnect. I must have had it when I was a teenager. Not to avoid the subject but… the past is the past. Leave it asleep, I look to the future. I don’t know if it helps me in any way to talk about it. Maybe I go back and I find something I wasn’t in peace with and then it’s stuck in my head again and it’s going to end up hurting me.
Matthias, you’ve been in American, Belgian, French and even Chinese films. Does the language influence the movie?
MS: It does but I was never able to pinpoint what it does to me. The linguist element changes something, even physically. I don’t know if I want to pinpoint it. When I work in French I think in French, when I work in English I think in English.
Probably because when I shoot in English I live in America and I absorb elements of that culture and the behaviourism and I’m very mimetic. Put me in Paris for three weeks in a Banlieue and you won’t see a difference between me and one of those guys, or put me in the Bronx for three weeks… it’s a subconscious curiosity thing, I just mirror people… it’s a very playful thing.
RK: Especially for this one, it was a real challenge for Matthias, a Flemish-Belgian guy being believable as a drug dealer in the Parisian suburbs.
MS: But what I also found interesting is what you were talking about earlier: the isolation of emotion for both characters. They both live in universes where they have to develop a level of sociopathy in terms of what they feel and how they are able to express/not express it. Also, both are very masculine worlds and you are not supposed to express those feelings. So there’s a very internalised emotionalism that’s very tangible; they cannot express the things they are dealing with. And that’s the biggest tragedy of the characters: the size of the context and the fact that we can’t speak about what we feel.
RK: They are both very lonely.
MS: That to me is something that relates to something much bigger. That’s a phenomenon that’s everywhere. I don’t want to generalise but there’s a big level…we are developing a very sociopathic society all over the world.
RK: It appears so.
MS: It’s just apparent. Within a split second the guy you trust the most is going to kill you. Look at the politics: they shake hands and then two hours later they sign a treaty to drop a bomb on you. Interesting world we live in. It’s a microcosm revealing the dynamics of a macrocosm.
Regarding the issue of acting in different environments, how does Kursk fit into that?
MS: I’m very curious about it, I’m seeing it in two days. I love the script, I adore Thomas as an artist and as a friend. He made very irregular choices. We aren’t doing Russian accents. We went neutral English. Even if you do right the Russian accent, it sounds like a funny tone. Like a German accent in English. You always look foolish.
Reda, you are making a submarine movie as well!
RK: Yes, we have two submarine movies coming out. Le Chant du Loup with François Civil, Omar Sy and Mathieu Kassovitz. I haven’t seen the movie as well.
MS: It’s a coincidence: I had just finished the submarine movie and then I did it.
Ms: This is a parallel reality. We are the same individuals. Strange.
How important is fatherhood for each character?
MS: Honestly, I think it’s really important. It’s the only two times when we see both characters smile. With my character, we see a lightness we’ve never seen before because my character’s life doesn’t allow him to smile. They are allowed tenderness. And that’s the importance of the kid, and it’s the reason they do what they do.
RK: The tragedy in this constant drive towards death, the children represent the drive towards life. They breathe oxygen while they hold their breath most of the time. It’s what makes them warm up again and what links them and bonds them behind the uniform of being a thug and a cop, there’s this thing that is shared by both and that somehow creates the bond despite the fact that they are from different sides of the tracks.
MS: Once again, it’s the issue of determinism that interests David, the filmmaker.
How much Arab do you speak?
MS: I don’t really speak it but I understand it quite well. I grew up in Brussels when I was a kid so I can’t speak it fluently in whole sentences, but I know the small ones.
The dirty words?
Not the dirty words… actually, I know a couple of dirty words. I know the small things.
Matthias, you directed a documentary?
MS: Actually, I’m still working on it! It’s a pretty intense process because I’m away all the time and the person I’m doing the doc about has a very unpredictable life. But the time component is the most interesting part of the story. It’s a story about someone fighting all odds in life and falling down and getting back up again. The bigger the time spent, the more fascinating the insight we will have into the heart of this being.
Reda, you also directed a short movie?
RK: I directed a short movie that was in Cannes three years ago. At the moment I don’t have a good story to tell. Maybe one day!
Photo: Filippo L’Astorina
Close Enemies (Frères Ennemis) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Venice Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Venice Film Festival website here.