It's one of the oldest stories in the world: boy meets girl, and for love boy decides to change his life, maybe not necessarily for the best. It's given an added resonance in Thomas Cailley's surprising, energetic debut feature, by the current crisis environment in Europe, with young adults somewhat unsure of what the world has in store for them in an economic landscape where nothing is a given. For the young folk in the French coastal small town where everything takes place, it's either work with the family, move abroad or join the army.
That sense of impending doom isn't necessarily a mere backdrop, but neither does Mr. Cailley overdo it in what is, at its heart, a coming-of-age romantic comedy, and an unusually playful one, divided in three different yet interconnected acts and starting from a bewildering "preface" at a funeral parlor that sets the tone.
Act one: boy meets girl. Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) isn't sure of what he wants to do with his life, so for the moment he's joining his brother in the family's carpentry business, after the death of their father. But he keeps bumping into the headstrong Madeleine (Adèle Haenel); this no-nonsense, abrupt, clearly determined young woman thinks the world is going to hell and her quasi-survivalist attitude sees her want to join the army. She signs up for a two-week military tryout for the elite airborne troops and, fascinated by her determination, Arnaud leaves everything behind to go with her.
Act two follows them as they get a taste of military life, which turns out to not be exactly what either of them expected, and in both that and the somewhat unexpected act three, Les Combattants makes clear what it is it's coming after: it's about life as an adventure and two young persons learning how to take it as it comes, discovering what it's all about and making the most of what it gives you. Arnaud and Madeleine strike a clumsy balance between the carelessness of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood, and in the process find out a lot about themselves: the young man turns out to not be as diffident as he thought himself to be, while the headstrong girl isn't quite the resourceful take-charge woman she imagines herself as.
Mr. Cailley and his DP, brother David Cailley, shoot it in the golden hues of teenage Summers and fond memories, boosted by an apparently counter-intuitive but clearly well-judged pumping electronic score. What's interesting about Les Combattants is how the director keeps you on your toes: you never really know where the plot is headed yet it all makes absolute sense both in narrative and in characterisation. You never feel either Madeleine or Arnaud are "betraying" who they are with each new turn in the story, and Ms. Haenel and Mr. Azaïs' performances are perfectly attuned to that sense of openness and "blank slate" you have in your early twenties.
The film's energy and directness are unusual in contemporary French cinema, a no-nonsense storytelling that shows instead of telling or thinking and meets head-on its characters as they try to make sense of the world around them. It's an exciting, engaging surprise of a movie.
Cast Adèle Haenel, Kévin Azaïs, Antoine Laurent, Brigitte Roüan, William Lebghil, Thibaut Berducat, Nicolas Wanczycki, Frédéric Pellegeay, Steve Tientcheu
Director Thomas Cailley; screenwriters Mr. Cailley and Claude le Pape; cinematographer David Cailley (colour); composers Lionel Flairs, Benoît Rault and Philippe Deshaies; designer Paul Chapelle; costumes Ariane Daurat; editor Lilian Corbeille; producer Pierre Guyard; production companies Nord-Ouest Films in co-production with Appaloosa Distribution
Screened March 15th 2015, Lisbon