Aggression, not affection, sparks romance in “Les Combattants,” a promising feature debut that already had members of the French film establishment touting newcomer Thomas Cailley as the next big thing prior to its premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes. From an American perspective, the project certainly looks great, blending slick Hollywood-style technique with that restrained sense of storytelling so heartily encouraged among Euro auteurs, though the truth of the matter is the same film wouldn’t necessarily stand out if unveiled at Sundance, despite a pair of punchy lead performances from young hotshots Adele Haenel and Kevin Azais.
No question Cailley will be an interesting talent to track, though the excitement seems rather exaggerated in relation to the sort of film that gets made at least a dozen times each year in the States (and nearly as often abroad): Two young people form a connection that’s not quite understood by the adults around them, branching off from society to explore that dynamic and work out whatever sexual tension has built up between them.
Instead of defining their relationship in opposition to society, as often happens in such films, the couple in “Les Combattants” actually cement their bond by enlisting in an army boot camp. Before that evocative change of scenery occurs, however, the story begins in a fairly average French coastal town where macho Arnaud (Azais) stumbles upon a self-defense demonstration in which he’s unexpectedly thrown to the ground by local tomboy Madeleine (Haenel, best known for “Water Lilies”). This public emasculation puts Arnaud’s cocky swagger in question, but after dusting off his ego, he starts to fixate on the strange young woman who knocked him off his feet — it’s “Love at First Fight,” as the pic’s corny English-language market title puts it.
Whereas Arnaud hadn’t given much thought to his future, ready to accept his lot continuing the family carpentry business, Madeleine has all sorts of wild ideas, including training for the worst-case apocalypse she’s convinced is coming. In fact, she’s so dedicated to honing her survival skills that she talks Arnaud into driving her clear to the next town to enlist in a special training course. And because she’s by far the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to him, Arnaud makes the rash decision to sign up for the intensive ROTC-style regimen as well.
It never ceases to amaze, the lengths to which young men will go to impress the first girl who seriously grabs their attention, and “Les Combattants” charmingly captures this impulse over the course of a lightly humorous if otherwise underwritten first hour — apart from a wonderfully specific opening scene, in which the brothers are witnessed trying to buy a coffin for their newly deceased father, before deciding to construct one of out of lowest-grade timber themselves. Though the slow-boil chemistry is there, the script feels flat, content to rely on the surface friction between its lead actors, rather than creating scenes in which we can really get to know the pair’s respective personalities before testing their limits in the field.
For better or worse, that low-key blandness is the thing that really sets Cailley’s film apart. In the States, the same story could (and arguably should) be boiled down to a solid 30-minute short, whereas on the Euro fest circuit, there’s more patience for the pic’s somewhat listless and atmospheric qualities — set to a hypnotic electro score from Hit’n’Run and stunningly lensed by the director’s brother, David Cailley.
The camera loves the young couple, shot to look like poster children for a new Aryan nation. Semi-inscrutable and yet totally fascinating, Haenel comes across as tough enough to win “The Hunger Games” out from under Jennifer Lawrence, while Azais, with his heavy brow and semi-vacant expressions, embodies the raw material of Arnaud’s workplace, playing a block of wood (and not much brighter) waiting to be shaped into something meaningful by the more alpha Madeleine.
Still, there’s no question that things pick up once the pair gets to boot camp, where they both discover that their aptitude for this hyperdisciplined military-style program isn’t what either of them had imagined. These scenes take place in the enormous forested region of Landes where huge wildfires rage in the distance. It’s an almost primordial backdrop against which this couple is free to pretend they’re the last two humans on earth.