Repackaged as Love at First Fight for its UK release, this charming French romantic comedy is an impressively handled debut feature from Thomas Cailley. Its refreshing dry humour, lovely performances and sublime cinematography – juxtaposing the idyllic beauty of the wooded environment much of the film hosts with horrid sights, such as two dead chicks being defrosted in a microwave – make for enjoyable and easy viewing.
Madeleine (the effervescent Adèle Haenel) and Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) are two early twentysomething’s who encounter one another at a military recruitment stand in a self-defence exercise, where the amusing yet heartfelt steely toughness and feisty resolution of Madeleine resoundingly defeats Arnaud. In all too convenient a coincidence, Arnaud ends up helping his older brother over the summer to keep their family carpentry business afloat following their father’s death and Medeleine’s family become one of their clients, building a new pool hut. Despite suffering embarrassment at her hands, the laid back Arnaud is besotted with Madeleine (who can blame the guy, this is Adèle Haenel we’re talking about). But as a survivalist and believing that the world is soon to end, she only has eyes set on joining an upcoming two week army training camp. Following his smitten stimulus, he abandons his brother to joins her at the camp and the interaction between the two polar opposite characters offers a lot of laughs in something resembling a modernised screwball comedy framework.
Although Les Combattants‘ strengths often lie in its more feelgood romcom characteristics, it being marketed as such a film proves deceptive. The army camp soon reveals itself to be less intensive as Madeleine expected and they both run away as outlaws and renegades during a role play exercise in the woods. This is where Cailley takes the film in an unexpected turn in regards to narrative, theme and tone. They begin to act as true survivalists in the woods – in what could be arguably described as more of an adventure film – which satisfies Madeleine’s premonition for apocalypse. With this abrupt shift comes some slack existentialism, a loss of touch with its pathos and a reliance on strained metaphors. The distinctive electro score does peak in these closing stages though, with its lightly brooding tone complimenting the quirky energy it produces earlier.
The final third allows for a romance to finally bloom but after their brief secluded respite, Madeleine becomes violently ill from eating a improperly prepared fox and Arnaud heroically carries her out of the woods into a small town that has been evacuated in anticipation of a forest fire. What feels so off kilter here is that much of the film works as a blow horn for female empowerment with such a strong, charismatic and resolute female lead; yet in no uncertain terms she endures her own mini apocalypse and it takes a man to save the day. This partial patriarchy is jarring and counter productive, but make no mistake that Les Combattants is anything but Adèle Haenel’s film. She excels in this role, winning a Cesar (her second after Suzanne and past nominations for the Water Lilies and House of Tolerance) as she balances the notes of deadpan humour and an emotionally fragile exterior. Her accolades and recognition at such a young age point to her becoming a leading star of French cinema at some stage, and that will be wonderful.
For more of my in-depth analysis and thoughts on Les Combattants (Love at First Fight), listen to episode 6 of the Project Projection podcast