Love At First Fight (Les Combattants)

France (2014) Dir. Thomas Cailley

Usually the fights come after people have been in love for a long time but debuting director Thomas Cailley’s romantic comedy of sorts presents us with a coming of age tale born out of unusual circumstances.

Arnaud Labrède (Kévin Azaïs) a teenage trainee woodcutter offers to work with his elder brother Manu (Antoine Laurent) run their family business in the wake of their father’s passing. However Arnaud’s mates cajole him into entering a military self defence class on the beach where his opponent is the intense Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), who easily takes Arnaud down with a judo throw, forcing him to bite his way out of it.

A few days later Arnaud discovers that the job building a shed is for Madeleine’s parents and the pair gradually get to know each other. Arnaud learns that Madeleine wants to join the army to learn survival techniques due to her nihilistic view of the world and after becoming smitten with her, decides to join her on a two week training camp.

Thomas Cailley’s take on the inevitable “will they-won’t they-of course they will” teen romance is a tale of two halves thanks to the second part of the story set around the army training manoeuvres, hardly an ideal breeding ground for a burgeoning love affair. While the outcome is pretty much inevitable the journey isn’t so smooth which is down to the discordant dynamic of the star crossed pair struggling to find common ground.

It may be your average chalk and cheese pairing but at least they have been given unique personalities and quirks. Madeleine is a quintessential tomboy, complete with the brusque and confrontational attitude, interests in physical exercise and lack of feminine dress sense. Arnaud is a sensible, earnest chap who is no softy but is empathetic to animals and enjoys his craftwork.

There is no animus shown between Madeleine and Arnaud for the biting incident as she clearly doesn’t care enough about him to harbour a grudge, although her harsh tongue may suggests otherwise, Madeleine is naturally caustic towards everyone. She shares her cynical opinion about the people she meets or observes, but behind this cynicism is a rather incisive and satirical commentary on modern life.

Whether this means Cailley is a bitter curmudgeon or is just poking fun at modern teens is open to speculation but this gives Madeleine a unique and rather fun edge. Cailley then turns this on its head when the duo join the training camp and Madeleine’s bravado and tough ideas backfire and she ends up being the least successful and most troublesome cadet.

Mild mannered Arnaud on the other hand ends up being her team leader on a special mission, which threatens to undo the progress made in their friendship. After a row the pair end up separated from the rest of the group when Arnaud decides to go home and Madeleine follows. Essentially now on the run, the duo put what they have learned into action to survive in the wilds of southeast France.

After a fun and quirky start we wander into fairly conventional territory to witness the crumbling of the walls of frostiness and love or something approximating it (i.e: sex) blossoms, but it works because the characters are unconventional. The military-cum-survival angle is another facet to break from the norm, sparing us from the cliché of the soft focus loving embraces and runs through a field of flowers, and supplanting them for fish hunting with makeshift spears, shouting at passing trains and chasing wildlife for food.

To quickly address the comedy remit of the film’s description, this may actually be a bit misleading as it isn’t exactly funny for any particular stretch of time. It offers a few sniggers, mostly through Madeleine’s blunt talking obstinateness, but nothing close to rip roaring hilarity of hearty belly laughs. Yet Cailley keeps the tone light and there is a positive and jovial energy through, right up until the final act where it temporarily turns into a stark drama.

It is during the late second to third act that things seem to run out of steam and the idea of a concrete resolve or denouement drifts away into the distance, leaving us on an open note, but not such an oblique one to leave us frustrated and bemused. In keeping with the tone of the film thus far it is light and avoids convention, delivered with a cheeky wink and not a middle finger as some abrupt endings may offer.

Cailley has created an often witty and well paced film for his debut, and while he has no distinguishable directing flair it is a confident work with a strong sense of narrative and understanding of what works to keep the audience engaged. The photography is straightforward yet gloriously vibrant in showing off the rural wonders of the location and the gritty realism of the military training sessions.

The biggest strength is the undeniable chemistry of the two leads, from their impromptu first meeting through to their eventual coupling. Both actors are clearly older than their characters but are able to convince us otherwise. Adèle Haenel, 26, scarily manages to pass for whatever age Madeleine is, both physically and emotionally, clearly enjoying the huge departure from Haenel’s usual glamour puss roles. Kévin Azaïs is on the right side of meek without being a wimp to make Arnaud enough of a believably robust foil and soul mate for Madeleine.

Changing the English title to the cute but ultimately deceptive pun of Love At First Fight might prove a deterrent in encouraging some people to investigate this film, but then again the literal translation of Fighters is less enticing. Regardless, Cailley’s debut is a brisk and charming affair that offers a fresh twist on an old concept, full of sunny promise and quirky charisma.