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New Release Review - LES COMBATTANTS

A pair of teens with ulterior motives sign up for an army training camp.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Thomas Cailley

Starring: Adele Haenel, Kevin Azais, Antoine Laurent




"Azais and Haenal make for a great straight man / wacky girl combo, winning us over instantly as they share their awkward adventure. The ambiguous ending sets their characters off on an uncertain path of discovery, and it's impossible not to wish them well."



With his latest film Aloha receiving a critical pounding, as have most of his recent efforts, it's easy to forget Cameron Crowe once gave us charming youth movies filled with engaging characters. Stepping in to fill that void is French filmmaker Thomas Cailley, whose debut Les Combattants (released in some English speaking territories under the awful title Love at First Fight), is the best Crowe movie Crowe never made.
In Arnaud (Kevin Azais) and Madeleine (Adele Haenel), Cailley gives us two of the most intriguing teen protagonists we've seen in quite some time. Living in a small coastal French town (a sunny side of France rarely glimpsed on screen), the two school leavers have an initial 'meet cute' that's far from cute. With a pair of army recruiters lurking in the town to enlist teens with little prospects in recession era France, Arnaud finds himself roped into a wrestling match on the beach with the tomboyish Madeleine, who initially gains the upper hand until Arnaud wins the bout by sneakily biting the girl. As fate would have it, Arnaud and his elder brother are hired to install a gazebo in the back yard of Madeleine's family's home. Arnaud finds Madeline fascinating, but she is too obsessed with preparing herself for the impending apocalypse she is convinced will arrive any day now to notice his advances. To gain some necessary skills for the end of the world, Madeleine has booked herself into a two week army preparation course, and in order to spend more time with her, Arnaud follows suit.
It's rare to find a French comedy that translates in such an easy manner as this one. French cinema is always considered sophisticated, but this fails to equate with the many awful dumbed down comedies that nation produces, few of which thankfully play outside of France. Les Combattants recalls the sort of smart teen movies Hollywood often gave us before American Pie opened the floodgates for bawdy toilet humour. Cameron Crowe seems to be the main influence, with both Arnaud and Madeleine resembling composites of Lloyd Dobler, the iconic character essayed by John Cusack in 1989's Say Anything. Like Dobler, Arnaud has no real ambitions for his life other than spending time with Madeline, who shares Dobler's social awkwardness. More accustomed to eating raw fish splattered in a blender, Madeline steals the show at an uncomfortable dinner with Arnaud's family, who aren't so much disapproving as disarmed.
Azais and Haenal make for a great straight man / wacky girl combo, winning us over instantly as they share their awkward adventure. What's best about their characters is how genuine and relatable they are. Few movies have captured just how uncomfortable that time of life is when you find yourself finally let loose from the shackles of school, unleashed unprepared into the big bad world. The ambiguous ending similarly sets Arnaud and Madeline off on an uncertain path of discovery, and it's impossible not to wish them well. We'll follow Cailley's own path with interest.



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