Apart from an engaging performance from Adèle Haenel, Les Combattants is a listless love story that never quite gets its feet off the ground.
Much a Deux About Nothingby Dave O’Flanagan
A quadruple-winner at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2014, writer and director Thomas Cailley’s feature-length debut is a quiet little love story conspicuously lacking in both love and story. Beating out stiff competition from the likes of Whiplash, Band De Files and Cold in July in the sidebar competition that runs parallel to the Cannes Film Festival, Cailley’s listless film is buoyed by an impressive turn from Adèle Haenel. Despite a handful of scenes which highlight Cailley’s skills as a filmmaker, these flourishes are too few and far between to save an otherwise dull affair.
Following the death of his father, Arnaud (Kévin Asaïs) has resigned himself to a future in the family carpentry business. Having become duped into an army self defense demonstration by his friends, he is introduced to the formidable Madeleine (Adèle Haenel). Envisioning a bleak and apocalyptic future, Madeleine is committed to a summer training programme that will prepare her for a role in the toughest division of the French army. Smitten and generally rudderless, Arnaud signs up for the training programme in an attempt to woo Madeleine.
The opening scene of Les Combattants is a clever, witty and energetic start to a film that struggles to match this initial ingenuity for the remaining running time. The sharp dialogue, quick cuts and dark humour of Arnaud and his brother coffin shopping almost feels at odds with the rest of the film. Often evoking a sense that you are watching a short film over-extend itself into feature-length format, Thomas Cailley’s languid narrative has little to nowhere to go with itself. Asaïs is decent as the naive and rudderless Arnaud, but it’s Haenel’s intriguingly complex Madeleine that serves as the silver lining to the lacklustre love story.
There are flashes of warmth and charm throughout the film; most memorable of which is a very brief boating trip that wonderfully typifies the contrast between Arnaud and Madeleine’s personalities. It’s a shame that overall Cailley holds back on the good stuff until much later in the film when Arnaud and Madeleine find themselves alone, at which point it’s so frustratingly late in the day that you might not even care.
Mercifully, many of the cinema chains in London have refrained from utilising the truly awful English ‘translation’ of the French title, Love at First Sight. In the all-too-brief moments of magic in Cailley’s film, there is undoubted promise in the young directors work going forward. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy has highlighted that in the absence of plot, characterisation can indeed be king. Unfortunately, neither Arnaud or Madeleine are nearly interesting enough to propel Cailley’s film towards anything beyond mediocrity.
Les Combattants is released on 19th June 2015 in the UK