Two bands of rowdy French kids from neighboring countryside villages duke it out for supremacy with the aid of big mouths and small slingshots in “The War of the Buttons,” the first of two new adaptations of Louis Pergaud’s novel. Set in 1960, scribe-helmer Yann Samuell’s enjoyable pic uses the faraway Algerian War as a backdrop for an exploration of growing up and asserting one’s independence, without becoming overly didactic or losing the sheer exuberance of being a 10-year-old. Sept. 14 opening was solid, but the rival adaptation, released Sept. 21, will eat into its B.O. potential.
After two Coco Chanel biopics, the “War of the Buttons” war is French cinema’s latest clash of similarly themed films, here caused by the fact that the 1912 novel’s rights fell into the public domain recently. The Rabelais-esque tale is part of the French curriculum, though “War’s” renown comes mostly from Yves Robert’s oft-televised film adaptation from 1962, which painted a bleak picture of life in the French provinces (the story was also filmed in English by John Roberts in 1994).
Whereas his colleague Christopher Barratier has chosen to set his new adaptation in 1944, Samuell (“Love Me if You Dare”) has opted for 1960, allowing him to let the war of the adults, the Algerian War, unspool mostly offscreen. Occasionally, however, it is vividly brought to life in dialogue, most notably when the father (Arno Feffer) of the only girl of the group, Lanterne (Salome Lemire), comes home from the front and describes the horrors he’s experienced to his neighbor, Lanterne’s classmate Lebrac (Vincent Bres).
Lebrac’s teacher, Mr. Merlin (Eric Elmosnino), sees potential in the boy, though Lebrac’s stern, widowed mother (Mathilde Seigner) wants him to help out at their farm and then become an apprentice, so the boy can bring home some much-needed dough.
In Samuell’s retelling, 10-year-old Lebrac is the pivot on which the story turns, with all other characters existing mainly in relationship to him. This allows the scribe-helmer to look at teacher-pupil, mother-son and boy-girl relationships while the feud between Lebrac’s gang and that of the “Aztec” (Theo Bertrand), from a parish nearby, ferments (and occasionally explodes) in the background. The tactic gives the sprawling and episodic tale a proper focus, though it also means that relationships that don’t involve Lebrac, such as the rivalry between Mr. Merlin and his colleague from the other village (Alain Chabat), are never quite integrated.
Themes of personal liberty and responsibility run throughout, and while Samuell doesn’t say anything new or deep on these subjects, they do provide further narrative glue. Appropriately, for an adaptation of a book famous for its flowery prose, the pic also gets a lot of mileage out of clever wordplay (often involving swear words) that will require linguistic acrobatics in subtitles.
Newcomer Lebres is aces, equally believable as a rousing teen leader and a pensive youth struggling with big questions and issues. He’s surrounded by a ragtag gang of cute and able youngsters, while the adults are all pro, with Elmosnino (“Gainsbourgh”) the standout as Lebrac’s sincere teacher.
A lot of “War’s” energy comes from its agile cutting and camerawork, which follows the kids around as they play and fight, though Samuell occasionally goes overboard in his manipulation of the bright colors and saturation levels. A famous scene, in which Lebrac’s gang fights naked to avoid having their enemies cut off their clothes’ buttons as punishment (hence the title), is updated to a slightly more staid version here, imaginatively staged in a field where the wheat, just high enough, doubles as fig leaves.
Score by Klaus Badelt isn’t particularly memorable, and the occasional use of electronic instruments doesn’t jive with the pic’s gently nostalgic vibe.