War of the Buttons: Film Review
In a highly unusual bout of filmmaking folie, two simultaneous adaptations of the French classic will be released on local screens within seven days of one another.
In a highly unusual bout of filmmaking folie, two simultaneous adaptations of the French classic, War of the Buttons (La Guerre des boutons), will be released on local screens within seven days of one another. This costly and unprecedented battle of Button productions has become a much-mediatized affair, pitting the pair of tyke costume dramas in a tight race to dominate the Gallic box office. The first version – written and directed by Yann Samuell (Love Me If You Dare) – offers a predictably polished melange of post-war nostalgia and crowd-pleasing comedy, though it has enough entertainment value to keep viewers in their seats…if only till next week.
Tracked closely by the French trades, the Button race began last year when the rights to Louis Pergaud’s 1912 novel – on which Yves Robert’s popular and oft-quoted 1962 film was based – fell into the public domain. Producer Marc de Pontavice (Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life) hired Samuell to draft up a new adaptation, only to learn that powerful confrere Thomas Langmann (The Artist, Mesrine) was developing his own, similar project. When the two couldn’t agree on a non-competitive strategy, the battle began, with both prod companies rushing to get their version out first (principal photography on Samuell’s Buttons finished only a month ago).
Given that both films are less “updates” than they are recreations set in the past – this one in 1957, the next one in 1944 – it’s unlikely that either version will achieve the cult status of the Robert movie, which offered a rather cruel vision of provincial children left to their own demise. That film featured scenes of eight-year-olds getting drunk on eau de vie when they weren’t being beaten by their parents, and its playful skirmishes were overshadowed by depictions of alcoholism, child abuse and rural poverty.
Writer-director Samuell has done away with the more dismal and racier aspects of the original – a sequence of frolicking nude boys in the ’62 film has been watered down here to meet current standards – to focus instead on the plight of the story’s main character, Lebrac (Vincent Bres, excellent), a crafty and rebellious tween forced to support his household after his father dies. With a tough-loving mother (Mathilde Seigner) preferring he become a trade apprentice, and a thoughtful schoolteacher (Eric Elmosnino) urging him to continue his studies, Lebrac’s dilemma becomes the crux of the story, with the “war” part pushed more into the background.
The war in question involves Lebrac and his band of young ruffians, who exchange insults, slingshot attacks and other harmless blows with the kids of a neighboring village. It all begins when Lebrac’s rivals call one of his buddies (Tom Rivoire, exploited for maximum cuteness) a “couille molle,” which translates roughly to “soft balls,” and must have been a far greater insult a hundred years ago than it is today. (The fact that neither film tried to update the novel to contemporary times shows either a lack of adaptability in the source material or, more likely, a lack of genuine creativity.)
Prompted by one gang’s decision to cut the buttons off the shirt of a captive (thus the title), the battles slowly intensify as the fate of Lebrac – including his relationship with a feisty tomboy (Salome Lemire) – pans out. Suffice to say that the ending here is much less bittersweet than in the older film, and alongside the colorful photography (by Julien Hirsch, Lady Chatterly) and production design (by Pierre-Francois Limbosch, The Secret Life of Words), the result feels too overtly sentimental, and far from the realities most children experience while growing up.
Once the smoke clears, what remains are a few endearing moments in newcomer Bres’ promising performance, and some decent comic asides in the shouting matches between Elmosnino (star of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life) and an underused Alain Chabat, who plays the rival teacher. Such scenes manage to add a bit of heart – and some much-needed punch – to a war which fails to put up a real fight.
Opens: In France (Sept 14)
Production companies: One World Films, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, TF1 Films Production, Les Films du Gorak
Cast: Eric Elmosnino, Mathilde Seigner, Fred Testot, Alain Chabat, Vincent Bres, Salome Lemire, Theo Bertrand, Tristan Vichard
Director: Yann Samuell
Screenwriter: Yann Samuell, based on the book by Louis Pergaud
Producers: Marc du Pontavice, Matthew Gledhill
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Pierre-Francois Limbosch
Music: Klaus Badelt
Costume designer: Charlotte David
Editor: Sylvie Landra
Sales Agent: TF1 International
No rating, 108 minutes