What does Omar Sy really say in “Tirailleurs”?

In this family drama, the actor summons the story of Senegalese soldiers during the 14-18 war, but Mathieu Vadepied’s film gets lost along the way.

Through Jean-Luc Wachthausen

Omar Sy and Alassane Diong in
Omar Sy and Alassane Diong in “Tiraillleurs” by Mathieu Vadepied, in theaters on Wednesday.
© Marie-Clémence DAVID / © Marie-Clémence DAVID / Light Motiv

Deleven films in theaters tomorrow! That is as many potential victims of avatar steamroller, which monopolizes screens and minds. How to stand out and attract the spotlight? By the little phrase that makes the buzz, triggers the controversy. Omar Sy understood this well with the film by Mathieu Vadepied (director of four episodes of the series In therapy ) Skirmishers, of which he is both the headliner and the co-producer.

Propelled today on the political field, this historical subject, which recalls the commitment of the Senegalese soldiers enlisted – sometimes by force – in the Great War, is naturally close to his heart. To the extent that the third favorite personality of the French challenged them in an interview with Parisian, pointing to the fact that the wars did not start with that in Ukraine, but that the more distant wars, in particular in Africa, do not interest them. The little sentence had its effect and comes back to him today as a boomerang. “It’s completely my story. It’s completely my identity,” he insists. We believe it.

READ ALSOWhy Omar Sy’s comments on the war are controversialPresented at the Cannes Film Festival (opening Un certain regard), which should have served as a sounding board, Skirmishers has not unleashed passions, even if it has mobilized some left-wing critics and critics of the colonial heritage. But no buzz or shock wave like with Native by Rachid Bouchareb, crowned with a collective interpretation prize at Cannes 16 years ago, followed by several Caesars.

Family drama

So what does it say Skirmishers over a simple but predictable plot, basic dialogues and a production on autopilot? The story of young Thierno (Alassane Diong), forcibly recruited in a small Senegalese village by the French army in 1917, and his father, Bakary (Omar Sy), who voluntarily enlists to watch over him and bring him back safe and sound in the country. It is a question of doing everything to escape this fight which is foreign to him.

Beyond the first somewhat “clichéd” images of a peaceful Africa faced with the reality of war – a fox caught in barbed iron –, the absurdity of the fighting seen from the side of the Africans, the horror of the trenches in Verdun, tensions, thefts and crimes between the African and French communities, often dashed hopes of integration, Skirmishers concentrates above all on the relationship between a father and his son and the emancipation of the latter through contact with the army, which galvanizes him and raises him in rank. Problem: the father will find himself under the orders of his son, with whom he speaks Fulani and Wolof. Not good for paternal authority.

It is at this point that the film falls into a sentimentalism that distances it from its main subject and transforms it into an ordinary family drama. We no longer believe in it. Mathieu Vadepied does not avoid the traps of a certain conformism and a heavy, demonstrative symbolism. “This story between France and Senegal, and the other African countries, is a distant and common story now. We’re together,” he admits, but good feelings don’t always make for good films and Omar Sy’s uniform acting doesn’t help matters.

deja vu

Skirmishers then allows himself to be locked into a story that loses its dramatic power and falls into the war film already seen. Question of staging and narrative quality that we find on the contrary in The Harkis (released last October), sober and implacable drama by Philippe Faucon (also present in Cannes) on the Algerian auxiliaries in the French army during the war of independence, abandoned by France after the signing of the Evian peace accords , in 1962.

On the same subject as Skirmisherswe then imagine another film, more ambitious, which could have been made with the poignant book by David Diop, soul brother (Booker Prize and Prix Goncourt des lycéens 2018), on the history of the Senegalese skirmishers who, from the Chemin des Dames to the Balkans, paid a heavy price in the Great War.

In theaters January 4.

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What does Omar Sy really say in “Tirailleurs”?