The second adaptation of the same popular youth novel to hit French screens in seven days, scribe-helmer Christophe Barratier’s “The War of the Buttons” is also the better film of the two. By moving Louis Pergaud’s story of two clashing groups of kids from adjacent hamlets back to 1944, Barratier is able to draw obvious but no less effective parallels between the central action and WWII. Fusing an exciting children’s adventure with more dramatic overtones and featuring a starry cast, pic should follow in the footsteps of Barratier’s “The Chorus” and become a sizable hit at home and abroad.
Though both Yann Samuell’s “The War of the Buttons” and Barratier’s film are based on the eponymous 1912 novel, the two projects are sufficiently different in tone and story details to each merit a look, much like the adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” brought to the screen by Rene Clement and Anthony Minghella.
In Barratier’s version, protag Lebrac (Jean Texier) isn’t a bright, mercurial kid who’s lost his father. Instead, he’s a boy with more bravado than brains who despises his dad (Kad Merad), whom he considers a coward for staying at home rather than going to fight the Germans.
The arrival of the pretty Violette (Ilona Bachelier), the goddaughter of village tailor Simone (Laetitia Casta), draws the eyes of Lebrac and his gang. But Lebrac, who spends most of his classes in the corner despite the best efforts of his teacher (Guillaume Canet), finds out to his dismay that Violette — being a proper French girl and the daughter of a professor — wants a man with an intellectual bent.
Aided by Philippe Rombi’s busy score, the pic’s sunny early going plays up the more comical side of the introduction and wooing of Violette, as well as Lebrac and his mates’ ongoing war with the gang of the “Aztec” (Thomas Goldberg), from the village down the road. Their fights, which at various points involve sticks, wooden swords, pots, pans and kettles, are clearly miniature wars. The titular buttons, which members of each gang try to cut from their rivals’ shirts and pants, are like war trophies, and unlike in Samuell’s version, they are a cleverly recurring leitmotif throughout.
Barratier, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stephane Keller and producer Thomas Langmann (with Philippe Lopes Curval responsible for some of the dialogue), allows the pic to grow darker as more of the life of the adults in the village is revealed.
While playing under the supervision of their teacher, the children witness the Nazis drag off a family of Jews in broad daylight, setting the stage for the connection between the wars of the kids and those of the adults, in a cleverly plotted storyline involving the mayor’s weakling son (Louis Dussol). As the film progresses, the kids’ ongoing war of the buttons comes to involve prisoners of war, traitors and unexpected switches of allegiance, much like in WWII, adding a layer of resonance for older auds.
Though more of an ensemble piece than Samuell’s version, Lebrac is still the main protag, and the slightly older Jean Texier plays him with a potent mix of sincerity, naivete and boyhood braggadocio. With the exception of Dussol, who’s strong in a tricky role, and Violette, Barratier sticks to cliches to quickly telegraph each kid’s respective role in the gang. And as in “The Chorus,” a tiny kid (Clement Godefroy) who wants to play with the big boys gets most of the laughs. Adult actors range from strong to adequate, with Canet delivering nicely shaded work as the teacher who still carries a torch for Simone.
As can be expected from the helmer, tech package is solid and glossy across the board, though the production design and costumes are a tad too sumptuous for a tiny provincial town in wartime France.
To add to the general “Button” confusion, both new versions have the same English title, though the French title of Barratier’s film translates as “The New War of the Buttons.”