Reviewed by Jason Rotstein
Regionalism and isolationism are two of the most important themes in American history. In the past few years, the film The Battle of Algiers (1966) has become canonized as part of college curricula. This comes on the heels of a 2003 report in the New York Times that the Pentagon conducted private screenings of the film to educate themselves and their personnel about the potential pitfalls of “winning a battle against terrorism and losing the war of ideas.”
To academics around the U.S., The Battle of Algiers is a damning film of American imperialism, and its status as a cult classic among the anti-war faithful has made itself almost ubiquitous as the “anti-war scarf.
I saw The Battle of Algiers for the first time in an undergraduate course entitled “Europe and Its Others: An Introduction to the Literature of Colonialism.” I remember having difficulty staving off the constant heat of the film’s polemic. I was disturbed by what I perceived as the blurring of lines between documentary reality and dramatic re-enactment for effect. (The only writer I know to grapple with these issues in any kind of rigorous theoretical way was W.G. Sebald.)
Today, Pépé le Moko is a lesser known film about Algeria. It is, however, more subtle in its presentation of the inviable positions of regionalism and isolationism. The film is often cited as an example of the cinematic style of “poetic realism” and a precursor to film noir; it is concerned with authenticity.
The plot runs as follows: Pépé le Moko is the name of an infamous gangster who has foiled Parisian and Algerian police one time too many. Forced into hiding in the underground world of Casbah for the past two years, a labyrinthine quarter in Algiers—that “form[s] a city apart”—the same place where we find many of the characters from The Battle of Algiers— Pépé, “a prince" (a prince of thieves?), longs to get out, settle down, live a more natural life and possibly find a “queen.” The movie becomes a game of cat and mouse chase. The question becomes: Will the cops catch Pépé, or will he surrender? Who will have the glory?
Cue the introduction of Gaby, a Parisian tourist and society lady. But the love story is just a sidebar. Even when Pépé meets Gaby for the first time, he desires her jewels before her face. But her jewels do not belong to her; Gaby is a kept woman.
Director Julien Duvivier provides information about Pépé’s origins, but he does not tell us how Pépé, the charmer that he is, came to be involved in crime. Even though he yearns to escape to Paris with Gaby, is this where Pépé truly belongs? And how will he escape when all of his friends are, in one way or another, informants? In the end, he will not realize his dreams. When he is captured at the end of the film and watches his love—the key to the outside world— and her ship leave the harbour, he decides to kill himself because he cannot live anymore with the thought that he will never escape, that he will remain confined in a new prison.
Is this to be interpreted as an existentialist act in line with Camus or Sartre? Or a sentimental act from man that we know is driven drunken mad at the death of his son-like protégé Pierrot earlier on in film? Are Pierrot and Pépé’s deaths parallel?
There is evidence to suggest that his death is sentimental. Earlier, when Pépé and Gaby sneak away together to a friend’s house, he is asked: “What were you doing together?” And he replies ironically and enigmatically: “Watercolors.” But Pépé’s attempts at sophistication are hollow. When he dresses up for women, he is dressed down, deserted or walked all over by them. He is in control when he is in movement or flight. Normally, he feels caged in Casbah like the animals he references earlier on in the film. He feels ghettoized in the pre-war colony of shadows and secrets that makes up Casbah.
Notice too Duvivier’s contrast in lighting: Casbah is blurry, dark and shot in dusty lighting; whereas Pépé’s first glimpses of Paris are stark and all too real. He searches for a cosmopolitanism that is authentic, unlike the company that Gaby keeps. The cosmopolitanism of Paris is not enough; he searches for a new world, where wealth is assured. America is not this place. It is spoken of as a slum. America is the bright lights of the movies, and Pépé yearns for a world bigger than life itself. Or are we mistaken? “To look this phony, that’s honesty,” he says.