Les Combattants [The Fighters] or Love at First Fight internationally, is a French indie romantic comedy/drama with brains and ideas, despite the corny alternative title. It won the FIPRESCI Prize after screening to critical acclaim in the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Find out why we recommend it at the upcoming Alliance Francaise French Film Festival after the jump:
Set in a small average coastal town, this restrained but emotionally complex and technically adventurous film address youthful unsettlement and curiosity about the future, and how confusing attractions are made sense of in unusual ways. Love at First Fight is the début feature from Thomas Cailley, and he, along with producer Pierre Guyard, was awarded Best First Film at the Cesar Awards. Screenplay credits are shared by Cailley and Claude le Pape.
We are introduced to Arnaud Lebrede (Kevin Asais, Cesar winner for Most Promising Actor) and his brother Manu (Antoine Laurent), as they are deciding on a casket for their recently deceased father. Unable to justify the outrageous prices they decide to build their own, and we learn about the family carpentry business they will continue running together. Arnaud’s summer ahead is looking pretty peaceful, with time split between jobs and hanging out with his buddies. Then he meets Madeleine (Adele Haenel, Cesar winner for Best Actress), the tense local tomboy who is full of bottled up emotion and fear of doomsday prophecies. Arnaud is thrown to the ground by Madeleine during a self-defence demonstration, and after dusting off his emasculation he becomes smitten.
Arnaud is a blender. Very little concerns him and he drifts day-to-day without much thought of the future. He leaves the stress of the business to his brother, and has little ambition or urgency in any regard. But, when their new job is at Madeleine’s home, he cannot escape her allure and the belief that her toughness could get him into shape. She possesses all of these wild ideas about an apocalypse, and is training for any situation imaginable. After offering to drive her to a nearby town so she can enrol in an intensive army training course, Arnaud decides to shake up his life, leave the business to his brother and follow suit. There are surprising twists and turns as the pair have completely different experiences at the camp, before the realisation that neither of them are cut out for it and finding their fates entwined by their mutual need for each other.
With it’s patient, languid pacing, the film is more concerned with relationship development and building an atmosphere than constructing a deep and complex story. Asais and Haenel are completely on point, their clashing personalities always unpredictable. But, with the bold Hit’n’Run electro score and the clever cinematography from Cailley’s brother David, Love at First Fight is not short of cinematic. There is a sequence towards the end in a village evacuated because of nearby bushfires which is absolutely stunning, and there is a beautifully constructed sequence early in the film that conveys just how agitated Arnaud is by the presence of Madeleine. Cailley is a director to watch, and the Cesar voters have recognised this too.
After a night out with his two male friends, which Madeleine joins him for, Arnaud follows the lead of his buddies to take a dip in the ocean on their way home. You get the sense that this has become a regular tradition to end the night. But Arnaud thought this night might be different. He thought he might go home with Madeleine, or that she would join him for a swim. But she heads home. He reluctantly undresses and enters the water slowly, looking back at Madeleine as she walks away. The camera glides across the water to the rhythm of the currents. Before Arnaud is an ocean. He is free, but he suddenly feels entrapped by his feelings for Madeleine. Later in the film, in a nice juxtaposition to this, the pair spend significant time alone together in a forest, with hot and heavy desire clinging to both of them. Madeleine sets up traps around their camp, but both are content to simply exist together as if no other human beings are left in the world.
The road to love is often lined with challenges, but what these two do to break through to each other is rare indeed. Seeking a rigid, disciplinary escape from a sleepy, directionless existence is a relatable path and this film does something very interesting with that crossroad of youth.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Thomas Cailley
Writer(s): Thomas Cailley, Claude le Pape
Starring: Kevin Asais, Adele Haenel, Antoine Laurent
Runtime: 98 minutes
This film is screening in Australia as part of the 2015 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. For information about session times and tickets, please visit the official festival website.