'Love at First Fight' ('Les Combattants'): Cannes Review

Love At First Fight Cannes Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Love At First Fight Cannes Film Still - H 2014

Easily likeable rite-of-passage drama with a witty screenplay and matching performances from its leads.

French helmer Thomas Cailley delivers his first feature film with a story about a mild-mannered young man's affections towards a headstrong, paranoid woman.

Make love -- of life -- like war: a twist on the now cliched pun best sums up first-time feature-film helmer Thomas Cailley's attempt to, well, twist rom-com conventions. Revolving around the growing bond between a docile young woodcutter and a very intense paratrooper-wannabe, Love at First Fight is overflowing with relentlessly acerbic humor that shapes the way the film's two young protagonists contend with not just each other, but also with the uncertainties of the world they're emerging into as adults.

It's only when the metaphor is brought to the screen literally -- when the visibly suppressed finally gets it on, and when they really play out their imagined battle games in life -- that Love At First Fight becomes fuzzy-focused. Still, the major chunk of the film cruises along with a superbly witty screenplay balancing crowd-pleasing comedy and some contemplation about youthful ennui in France, and the two leads deliver turns that do justice to the text.

A box-office hit is certainly in the cards when the film opens in France on August 20, what with its well-received premiere at the Directors' Fortnight sidebar at Cannes on May 17; more festival exposure and perhaps niche releases are certainly possible, perhaps in line with similarly Quinzaine-launched comedies like the aesthetically different rite-of-passage 2009 hit The French Kissers.

Set in summertime in a small town in southwestern France, Love At First Fight's meet-cute takes place with its two lead characters all tangled up in the sand. But not out of affection, obviously: a mild-mannered young man preparing to start work in his recently deceased father's woodcutters' factory, Arnaud (Kevin Asaïs) is somehow pushed into a wrestling match with Madeleine (Adele Haenel), a fight in which he is thrown to the ground judo-style and seemingly heading to a crushing defeat until he bites her.

The pair will meet again when Arnaud finds himself working on a wooden hut in Madeleine's backyard. Unlike the young man, Madeleine is tough on not just others (her parents should reject Arnaud and his brother's sales pitch because "they're used to rejection"; clubbing is a "retarded" act about "crowding together under three spotlights") and also herself. Somehow seeing herself as braving for the end of the world -- a trait shown by her decidedly nihilistic views of society -- she trains herself intensely and aspires to join the army. And she does -- with Arnaud, clearly smitten by this human tornado, joining her on a two-week training session.

Up until this point, Love At First Fight looks impeccable. In addition to the verbal sparring between Arnaud and Madeleine, which engagingly keeps the frisson in check, Cailley's screenplay (co-written with Claude Le Pape) also places these two confused young people in a fight of survival against what they see as a harsh "nature": Arnaud would transform wood into usable objects and eliminate worms from the soil to facilitate building work, while Madeleine forces herself to consume raw sardine (mixed into a pulp in a blender) to beef up her physique and willpower. All this could also be taken as their rebellion against what could be seen as "natural" expectations forced on them, the roles they should be playing as a man or a woman, a factory boy or a bourgeois college student.

Their eventually enlistment as temporary trainees in a paratroopers' division should offer ample opportunities to poke fun at the excessive (and logic-free) emphasis on order -- something that allows for some moments of fun when the headstrong Madeleine offers ripostes leaving the unit leader, Lieutenant Schliefer (Nicolas Wanczycki), grappling for words. (It's even funnier when he doesn't even try: at one instance, he simply dismisses the youngsters for a 15-minute cigarette break when he couldn't react to Madeleine's straight talk.)

Before sending the kids into the forests for a mock war game, Schliefer tells Arnaud he should "get the upper hand". It's a harbinger to come as the balance of power between him and Madeleine shifts -- and when he becomes more in control, her veneer of strength dissipates. Blame it on the making love: It's when the pair finally strips and consummates their desire that the off-kilter tautness begins to peter out. Perhaps it's fortunate that this happens much later in the film than expected -- given the title and much of the publicity images of the pair as fatigue-wearing combattants, this part only takes up the last third of the 98-minute film.

While slightly unnerving in its final conversion to some social norms, there's still quite a lot to like in Love At First Fight. Well, maybe not the misguided, banal English title, but its confrontation-into cuddliness narrative offers a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 17, 2014

Production Companies: Nord-Ouest Productions with Appaloosa Distribution

Cast: Kevin Asaïs, Adèle Haenel

Director: Thomas Cailley

Screenwriter: Thomas Cailley, Claude Le Pepe

Producer: Pierre Guyard

Director of Photography: David Cailley

Production Designer: Paul Chapelle

Costume Designer: Arianne Durat

Editor: Lilian Corbeille

Music: Lionel Flairs, Benoit Rault and Philippe Deshaies for Hit'N'Run

Sales: Haut et Court

In French

No rating, 98 minutes