Love at first bite

If you’ve ever been wondering when France will come up with an Angelina Jolie figure, your wait is over. She’s here and her name is Adele Haenel. Playing an arrogant young woman called Madeleine whose life is little more than a series of tasks whereby she pushes herself to her limits, we feel she needs to meet someone who’ll bring out her sensitive side. This is a function eventually performed by the carpenter Arnaud (Kevin Azais), one of two brothers commissioned by her parents to build a stand over their swimming pool.

But Les Combattants, currently showing at the Irish Film Institute and selected cinemas, is more than a work about a couple who fall in love. It’s also about coming to terms with oneself, about dealing with the death of a parent, even about the end of the world. 

Yes, these are big themes. Sometimes the film crumbles under their weight but it’s still to be commended for attempting them. As Dr Johnson once said about a dog walking on its hind legs, the surprise isn’t that it does it well but that it does it at all.   

Training session

Arnaud first meets Madeleine when they’re asked to wrestle together during a training session for joining the army. She proves to be stronger than him; he has to bite her hand to get her off him and save face. 

Afterwards at boot camp with her he does his utmost to gain her respect – and ultimately her love. If she teaches him the values of endurance, he impresses upon her the importance of being able to put pine needles in the sand without breaking them.

In some ways Les Combattants is contrived, like one of Eric Rohmer’s ‘moral tales.’ We feel we’re being ‘got at’ to think certain ways. It becomes profound in the last quarter when a forest fire threatens Madeleine’s life and Arnaud finally gets a chance to protect her. At the heel of the hunt, though, it goes in a different direction. It ends almost on an anti-climax, its frivolity undercutting the drama of the foregoing.

This is something one often finds with French films. They navigate their way around a theme like a dog circling a mat before it sits down. Maybe this is a good thing. At least it relieves us of Hollywood’s penchant for ‘wrapping things up.’ But Les Combattants still left me with a feeling of unfulfilment.

Was this because, like George Bush, I find films about the French military unconvincing? (Bush once said he only expected the French to help him with the war in Iraq if they were allowed to bring their musical instruments.) It’s probably more to do with the fact that Thomas Cailley, the film’s director, doesn’t press home his initiative when he has us in the palm of his hands. He threatens a kind of mini-holocaust during the forest fire but then draws back.

On the credit side, the film boasts strong performances from Haenel and Azais, both of them reversing the ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’ stereotypes of most films going the rounds these days.

Cailley also resists the temptation to go the Private Benjamin route of making such a reversal into a kind of quasi post-feminist manifesto – another kind of cliché.