All’s fair in love and war, as the saying goes, and in Les combattants (AKA Love at First Fight) those two things aren’t so far apart.
The directorial debut of Thomas Cailley — he also shares writing duties with Claude Le Pape — this French-language film is a romcom but only in the most superficial of terms.
Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) may have the cheekbones of a younger Hugh Grant, but he’s also somewhat vacant, lacking in charm. He plans to spend the summer working with his older brother Manu (Antoine Laurent) — bearded and scowling — building gazebos and hanging out with his mates, Xavier (William Lebghil) and Victor (Thibaut Berducat). Fishing in the woods, chilling out, smoking, he’s content to live the easy life. But then Arnaud meets Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) — less a meet cute than a meet ugly: their first encounter involves biting.
Dour and driven, hostile and slouchy, with knitted eyebrows and a set jaw, she’s training in survival techniques, determined to join the army. Arnaud watches her swim, with a backpack full of roofing tiles, and slowly, cheekbones quivering, begins to fall for her. When Madeleine heads off to boot camp, he impulsively joins her.
Les combattants follows two very contrasting people who each show a different way of living. For Arnaud that means getting away from his late father’s business, the business to which he is gradually committing himself through failing to commit to anything else, while for Madeleine learns to stop and smell the flowers (or else focus on a blade of grass). That’s when they’re not debating hitting each other for training purposes or pointing replica weapons at each other.
Arnaud and Madeleine’s attraction may initially be born of conflict, but things get sunnily idyllic in the film’s third act before going apocalyptic.
Cinematographer David Cailley, brother to director Thomas, draws out the natural beauty of northern France while Hit’n’Run’s catchy electro score imbues Les combattants with a youthful energy. The film may involve a ferret but this is no Along Came Polly.
Both Azaïs and Haenel turn in remarkable performances — they won Most Promising Actor and Best Actor respectively at the César Awards last year — and the film has fun taking apart gender roles but eventually gets caught up in the very tropes it’s trying to deconstruct, albeit in their more indie form.
Still, as the mysterious recruiter (Frederic Pellegeay) says, “You have to strike beyond your target”, and there are plenty of sparks here to catch your interest.