War of the Buttons (La Nouvelle guerre des boutons): Film Review

Second Buttons film adds a few welcome stitches to the pair of glossy, high-profile remakes.

The second "reboot" of the original 1912 novel and 1962 film to hit French screens within a week, this version transplants the action to 1944 Vichy France.

PARIS — With more stars, more moola and perhaps more of a raison d’être, the second of two competing War of the Buttonsreboots hits Gallic screens. While taking many cues from both the original 1912 novel and 1962 film, this “new” version (according to the French title) transplants the action to 1944, mixing its childhood skirmishes with a darker tale of small-town life under the Vichy regime. Filmed with generic polish by The Chorus director Christophe Barratier, Buttons No. 2 will battle hard against its doppelganger (released only last week), though neither movie should find major traction outside Francophonia.

Produced by Thomas Langmann (The Artist) for a purported budget of €16 million ($22 million), the latest – and let’s hope last, at least for now – Buttons update takes a few detours from Louis Pergaud’s book, which recently fell into public domain, spawning a race between two simultaneous productions to get their films out first. If director Yann Samuell’s adaptation beat its rival to the screen, Barratier’s version is probably the more memorable one, adding a somewhat intriguing twist by setting its events during the final months of WWII.

That said, subtlety has never been the filmmaker’s strongpoint, and though there’s a somber side to certain parts of the story, such aspects are ultimately glossed over in a formulaic, happy ending that seems a far cry from the actual tragedies of Nazi-occupied France. If anything, Barratier and his three co-writers (including Langmann himself) deserve credit for trying to take the source material somewhere different, even if the result feels like a conventional kids movie with adult themes scattered among all the rock-throwing and name-calling.

The tykes in question once again involve rebellious pre-teen LeBrac (Jean Tixier, spirited) and his fellow ruffians, who start a playful, rather harmless conflict with kids in the neighboring town. Although the clashes between the two gangs provide early comic relief, they are eventually overshadowed by the larger events of the war, which include the plight of a Jewish girl (Ilona Bachelier) in hiding who soon becomes LeBrac’s love interest, as well as that of a local schoolteacher (Guillaume Canet) forced to comply with Vichy policemen who wield their power all too heavily.

While in the Samuell film the various play fights are never much more than that, here they’re meant to illustrate the greater battle between partisans and resistance fighters that took place throughout France at the time. (Just in case this weren’t clear enough, Barratier inserts some heavy-handed symbolism to nail the message home). Whether or not this is a credible metaphor is questionable indeed, but it does make for a smoother and more entertaining ride, one that’s abetted by the extremely sleek camerawork of Jean Poisson (Dante 01), but also hindered by an omnipresent, Disney-style score from Philippe Rombi (Nothing to Declare).

As the adult drama is more in focus here, Canet and co-stars Laetitia Casta (Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life) and Kad Merad (Welcome to the Sticks) are given more to work with, though their performances often remain on the same note. The child actors – most of them newcomers – are all top notch, but also way too squeaky-clean in their looks and attitudes. As in last week’s remake, they feel less like real children than like pieces of nostalgia meant to reflect the way kids once were, but never are.

Opens: In France, Sept. 21
Production companies: La Petite Reine, TF1 Films Production, Studio 37, Mars Films, Longline Studios
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Laetitia Casta, Kad Merad, Gerard Jugnot, Jean Texier, Clement Godefroy, Theophile Baquet
Director: Christophe Barratier
Screenwriters: Christophe Barratier, Stephane Keller, Thomas Langmann, Philippe Lopes Curval
Based on the book by: Louis Pergaud
Producer: Thomas Langmann
Director of photography: Jean Poisson
Production designer: Francois Emmanuelli
Music: Philippe Rombi
Costume designer: Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz
Editor: Yves Deschamps, Anne-Sophie Bion
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 99 minutes