Somebody once sang that love was a battlefield (okay, it was Pat Benatar in 1983) and it immediately sprung to mind when watching Thomas Cailley’s feature debut survivalist melodrama Les Combattants, as it has moments in which it is quite literally the case. This multi César award winning film is a surprising delight and one surely to feature on many a film-fan’s end of year list. The film opens in a small French coastal town with brothers Manu (Antoine Laurent) and Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) incredulously arguing with an undertaker about the inferior grade of wood used and extortionate price of their father’s coffin. Although Manu is older, he looks to his younger sibling for help and at times guidance but it would appear that Arnaud is just as lost; unsure what his future holds but happy to help out in the family carpentry business over the summer. Apparently, in France following the recession the second largest recruiter (after McDonald’s™) is the Army. Cue stoic men in fatigues setting up their mobile office and offering anyone who will listen to their drafting spiel, an inflatable lilo and tips on focus and self-defence. During these beach combat sessions, Arnaud is pitted against Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) whom he initially refuses to fight because she’s a girl. He needn’t worry for she can handle herself.
A chance shed-building leads Arnaud to the Beaulieu’s home and their daughter… Madeleine is an only child; an avid swimmer who drinks raw mackerel smoothies for breakfast and is determined to join the army. Her view of the world and its eventual destruction is rational and profound but labels her ‘weird’ and yet her preoccupation with survival attracts Arnaud and in true romantic fashion, he attempts to impress her by impulsively signing up to the Army training camp she is enlisted on. If Madeleine is impressed she makes it impossible to tell with her increasing deadpan expression. There is something incredibly convincing about both characterisations but it is Madeleine who produces the laughs, much like a 30s film dame only quirkier. Sensitive, nature-loving, amiable Arnaud and sullen, sporty, survivalist Madeleine make a strong team. The camp comes as a surprise to both of them and their capabilities.
Cailley’s film is an unusual one in the sense that it doesn’t quite fit a genre; to call it a romantic-comedy is to do it a disservice. Nothing is forced. It is slight, wry and a little odd but wholly persuasive in not only its gender roles but resounding in its depiction of a country coming out of a recession, heading for ruin and a race of people to (eventual) extinction. The cinematography provided by David Cailley (brother of Thomas) is beautifully simple and while he manages to depict so much physical gorgeousness, there is always a sense of foreboding present, an atmosphere which pays off strikingly pre-denouement. Its electro soundtrack by Hit ‘n’ Run keeps things relatively upbeat amidst the threat of melancholia and existential crisis.
Visually, it has a very simplistic palette; mostly greens, greys and muted blues which is complimentary to not only the camouflage colours of the army uniform but also the organic elements of nature which are so often shot – water, sky and foliage with occasional sunshine yellow warmth. Cailley’s direction, his brother’s cinematography and Lilian Corbeille’s almost carefree editing serves the narrative well; natural lighting gives way to gloomy grey by the end. Given the integral use of colour, a Blu-ray release of the film would serve it greatly especially enhancing the already picturesque mise-en-scéne. Sadly, there are no extras on the disc either.
Les Combattants makes for an intelligent, sweet-natured, amusing film. Figuratively speaking, Madeleine and Arnaud could be the last two humans on earth (or indeed animals), passing the time without thinking, engaging in aggression and affection of equal measure and above all surviving but when you’re in the early throes of love, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?
*sings* Heartache to heartache we stand…