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Cinéma et Algérie

Comparaison "Les hommes libres" et "Pépé-le-Moko"

mardi 25 avril 2017, par Mathilde Renaud

J’ai écris cet essai durant mon séjour Erasmus à Reading en Angleterre. J’ai eu la chance de bénéficier d’un cours de critique cinématographique, centré sur le cinéma français et l’Algérie. Ici sont comparés les films "Les hommes libres" d’Ismaël Ferroukhi et "Pépé-le-Moko" de Julien Duvivier, deux oeuvres faisant référence à l’Algérie avec 70 ans d’écart.

Algeria was a French colony until 1962, at the outcome of the Algerian war started in 1954. Here, we will talk about two movies : one of the pre-war time “Pépé le Moko” by Julien Duvivier, when Algeria was still a French colony, and an other one “Les hommes libres” by Ismaël Ferroukhi, which came out in 2011 but takes place during the German occupation in Paris (1940-44). “Pépé le Moko” is a movie released in 1937 and is about a French gangster who lives in the Casbah in Alger in order to protect himself from the French police. Concerning “Les hommes libres”, the movie tells us the story of Algerian and North African Muslims who fought with the French resistance, through two main historic figures : Si Kaddour Benghabrit, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris and Salim Halali, an Algerian Jewish singer. We are going to try to compare and contrast the depiction of city spaces, and “spaces-within-spaces” in these two movies.

The narrative spaces in both films are very important and hold the two stories. In “Pépé le Moko” there are two different opposed spaces : the interior (the Casbah) and the exterior (the police headquarters). There is also a third place that is only verbally evoked : Paris. In “Les hommes libres” the story takes place in Paris, where is the Grand Mosque. Here Paris is the exterior and the Mosque the interior.
The depiction of France and especially Paris is different in both movies. Indeed in “Pepe le Moko”, France and Paris are represented as an ideal elsewhere. Pépé wants to escape the Casbah, where he suffocates as if he was in a prison, and flee to France. Indeed, at the end of the movie, Pépé espaces from the Casbah. During his walk, we see dissolved seascapes around the protagonist : the trip to France is depicted as the escape to freedom.

On the contrary, in “Les hommes libres”, Paris is cold, grey and threatening. Indeed, the city suffers from the German occupation and the massive roundup of Jews. The omnipresence of the police makes the atmosphere oppressive in the streets. But there is the Mosque inside the city, which seems to be the last piece of peacefulness. At the beginning of the movie, there is even a celebration (the birth of the prophet) and the rector of the Mosque walks with a high-ranked German soldier. The Mosque appears as a place where everyone seems happy.

The opposition between the two kinds of worlds (the occidental and the Arab and Muslim world) create spaces within spaces. The Grand Mosque is a place apart from Paris, and the Muslim community live separated from the rest of the population. They share their own mother tongue, frequent places specific to the North African community (“L’Etoile d’or” in the movie, the hospital of Bobigny). Moreover, Pépé’s Casbah is a place strictly defined and closed in Alger where the French police cannot come in. The Casbah is separated from the rest of Alger. As a result, there are an inside and an outside in both movies.

It is interesting to see the Casbah and the Grand Mosque as defined characters within both movies. In “Pépé le Moko”, during the first sequence in the headquarter of French policemen in Alger, we can already see the two worlds trough a dolly shot that goes to the map of Alger where we can see the Casbah. The “inside” society of the Casbah is first portrayed as a place of security and freedom (thanks to its numerous ways to escape). However, the sequence then goes to a documentary that depicts the Casbah. We hear the voice of the Inspector Meunier “De tous côtés, dans tous les sens, des escaliers, des montées abruptes comme des échelles, des descentes vers des gouffres sombres et puants, des porches suintants, obscurs, bondés à toute heure, des rues désertes qu’habite le silence, des rues aux noms étranges « rue de l’Impuissance », Ils sont quarante mille, là où ils ne devraient être que dix mille. Il n’y a pas une Casbah, il y en a cent. ». The atmosphere of the Casbah changes and becomes oppressive. The Casbah is both the protection and the trap.

On the other side the Grand Mosque has also its ambiguities and can be taken as a specific character in « Les hommes libres ». The first time we see this place, there is music and children playing. It seems to be a place where everything is fine. But at the same time it is a place of secrets and dangers for Younes, the protagonist. Besides, there is not just the beautiful courtyard in the Mosque but also hidden corridors and Ali has to stay hidden inside, like a prisoner.

We can finally add that the characters in both movies define places. Si Kaddour Benghabrit embodies the ambiguity of the Mosque : Younes does not know if he collaborates with the Germans or not. In “Pépé le Moko” the characters embodies the places : Inès is Pépé’s “Casbah portative”, Gaby represents Paris and Pépé defines himself with the Casbah (when they first meet he asks Gaby “Tu aimes mon petit bled ?” and she responds by comparing the Casbah with Paris). Besides, Slimane back and forth between the outside (the French authority) and the inside (the Casbah) make him represents the link between the two spaces.

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