Thomas Cailley’s quirky and engaging romance Les Combattants (released in some areas with the dismal pun title Love At First Fight) crosses the Channel with quite a reputation: in addition to a haul of awards during last year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as some high profile nominations, the film achieved considerable success at this year’s Césars. There Adèle Haenel was crowned Best Actress for her performance, beating the likes of Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard and Catherine Deneuve, while her co-star Kévin Azaïs was named Most Promising Actor. In total there were nine different nominations for Les Combattants and its cast and crew, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It’s rare to see a film like this, a well-written but ultimately slight love story, receive such a degree of acclaim. But Les Combattants is deftly-constructed, subtly addresses certain problems faced by young, modern French people (‘France is dead. There’s no future here,’ says one) and yes: the lead performances in this tale of blossoming affection are excellent.
Azaïs’s character, the gentle Arnaud, runs the family carpentry business with his older brother Manu (Antoine Laurent). They live with recently widowed mother Hélène (Brigitte Roüan) in a small Bordeaux coastal town which seems to be fairly popular with tourists; there’s a vibrant nightlife scene at the beach, for example, but tellingly the French Army has targeted the area for recruitment, presumably in the hope of attracting bored, unemployed local kids. It’s at the beach that Arnaud first meets Madeleine (Haenel), a serious, complex college drop-out back living with her parents. The two end up wrestling during a self-defence class organised by the Army but Arnaud, bested and suffering the taunts of his male friends, surreptitiously bites Madeleine in order to save face. These sparring partners are reunited when Arnaud is tasked with building a shed at Madeleine’s house; he can barely conceal his attraction to her while working, but she is cooler, at first meeting nearly everything he says with a spiky put-down or rebuttal.
This behaviour is completely in keeping with Madeleine’s character: she is guarded, tough and independent, so it comes as no surprise to learn that she is keen on joining the military, partly because she believes the apocalypse is round the corner. Her reasons for joining up are entirely for self-preservation: she wants to be able to survive and the protection of French national interests at home or abroad is not part of the equation. However the ‘super-hard’ training camp she joins in preparation turns out to be more like an Outward Bound course with added camouflage, led by inept officers who are gently mocked by the screenplay. An infatuated Arnaud signs up with her and actually shows more of an aptitude for life as a soldier, earning a promotion while Madeleine struggles with certain physical tasks and authority, but in doing so he leaves his brother swamped with work and struggling to keep the family business afloat.
The story takes an unpredictable turn in the final act, but the slow, believable development of the relationship between Arnaud and Madeleine keeps Les Combattants on an even keel and the suggestion that something terrible is coming to modern France is skillfully built up throughout the film (with some early shots echoed later on a much grander, more terrifying scale, and much foreshadowing of certain events). Cailley structures his film in three parts, first showing ‘Arnaud’s world’, then showing ‘Madeleine’s world’ and finally showing a world that they build together. It’s a risky move – I must admit to preferring the more conventional first half of the film, set in the town, to the second – but by the end the characters seem so familiar, and so well-drawn, that the slightness of their story does not seem to matter all that much. Credit due to Cailley and his co-writer Claude Le Pape, obviously, but also to the actors: Azaïs is excellent and Haenel turns in one of the better performances I’ve seen this year. Her next job is with the Dardenne brothers.
Directed by: Thomas Cailley.
Written by: Thomas Cailley, Claude Le Pape.
Starring: Adèle Haenel, Kévin Azaïs, Antoine Laurent, Brigitte Roüan.
Cinematography: David Cailley.
Editing: Lilian Corbeille.
Music: Lionel Flairs, Benoît Rault, Philippe Deshaies.
Running Time: 98 minutes.