When Thomas Cailley’s debut Les Combattants (a.k.a. Love at First Fight) first screened at the Cannes film festival, it was met with a standing ovation. Some critics hailed it as the future of French cinema and the film went on to secure no less than nine nominations at the French equivalent of the Oscars where it would eventually bring home awards for best first feature film, best actress and most promising actor. Marketed to English-speaking audiences as a romantic comedy, the film’s low-key humour and literary sensibility struggled to win over the critics meaning that this long-overdue home release is a great opportunity to discover one of the more arresting directorial debuts in recent years.
The film is set in a quiet corner of Southern France. Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) and his brother Manu (Antoine Laurent) have just inherited their father’s carpentry business and Arnaud seems poised on the verge of a promising career despite his lack of anything approaching a long-term plan. Co-written by Cailley and Claude Lepape, the film positions Arnaud as the quintessential modern man: Raised on a diet of bumbling cartoon dads and protected by a cloak of societal privilege, Arnaud is both lacking in agency and fiercely protective of his male pride. Having met with army recruiters in order to get his hands on a free t-shirt and air mattress, Arnaud is roped into wrestling with a young woman as part of a self-defence exhibition. “I don’t hit girls!” Arnaud protests until the young woman brutally pins him to the ground, prompting him to bite her arm.
The young woman in question is the beautifully stand-offish Mathilde (Adèle Haenel), who has recently abandoned her high-flying studies in macroeconomics in order to prepare for the apocalypse. Just as the film uses Arnaud to capture the pampered listlessness of today’s men, it uses Mathilde to capture the strength and intensity of young women who have come of age under the auspices of third-wave feminism. Mathilde is so convinced of society’s imminent demise that she spends her days drinking raw fish smoothies and swimming with a backpack full of roof tiles. Intense and self-reliant to the point of misanthropic derangement Mathilde is someone who announces her intention to join the French army by kicking over a French flag and demanding the relevant forms.
The film’s opening half is dominated by a gentle comedy of manners emerging from the film’s pointed engagement with gender and the state of the French economy: Arnaud is a listless man-child and yet everywhere he turns, people seem to offer him jobs and chances for advancement. Mathilde, on the other hand, is a fiercely intelligent and driven young woman who’s every attempt to get on is met with dismissive scorn. Indeed, when Mathilde joins Arnaud’s family for dinner, the conversation naturally turns to the lack of jobs for young people and we see how the inequalities in French society have nurtured two very different reactions to the economic crisis: Embittered and unappreciated, Mathilde reaches the conclusion that society has nothing to offer her and so sets about preparing for its imminent demise; Pampered and protected, Arnaud has the luxury to consider a number of different career paths and so admits that he has never really thought about the collapse of Western civilisation.
Despite their differences, the pair inch closer together until Arnaud’s male pride and lack of agency force him to choose between swimming with his drunken friends and walking home with Mathilde. The wrong decision reached, Arnaud re-discovers his rudder and signs up for a military boot camp he knows Mathilde will be attending. Placed under military discipline, the couple’s attitude to life begins to shift and the film along with it.
Marketing Les Combattants as a romantic comedy was a mistake for two different reasons: Firstly, while the film does feature a number of ‘laugh out loud’ moments, the comedy is really quite low-key and character-driven when compared to most romantic comedies. Secondly, Cailley’s approaches to narrative and character are a lot closer to those of high-end French dramas than those of Hollywood comedies. For example, rather than telling us that Mathilde is alienated and Arnaud is privileged, the film buries these details in dialogue fragments and uses evocative imagery to convey the fact that this is a film about how our experience of the world shapes both who we are and how we relate to other people. As you might expect from a European film that relies quite heavily on visual storytelling to convey mood and theme, Les Combattants is an absolutely beautiful piece that is forever juxtaposing the beauty of the actors and the French countryside with the ugliness of decaying buildings and neon lighting.
Despite Mathilde’s interest in survival and Arnaud’s desire to drift through life with a minimum of effort, the military life seems to suit Arnaud a whole lot better than it does Mathilde. Where Arnaud is likeable and group-oriented, Mathilde is rude, arrogant and prone to suggesting that the best military tactic is ‘every man and woman for themselves’. Already disillusioned with society, Mathilde soon grows disillusioned with army life, prompting Arnaud to seize the rudder and lead them both out into the wilderness where they enjoy an idyllic time together… until Mathilde decides to eat a fox.
As beautiful as it may be, the film’s final act feels like a betrayal of Mathilde’s character as she winds up being completely unsuited to a life in the wilderness. Having Arnaud rescue Mathilde in true fairy tale style may work well as a romantic beat but it unbalances the relationship and guides the film back towards traditional ideas about gender: The character of Arnaud has a good strong arc in that his experiences in the boot camp allow him to discover a wellspring of courage and humanity that feeds into a real sense of agency. Conversely, Mathilde’s arc positions her as a foolish and incompetent little girl who needs to be humbled and saved before she can realise that self-reliance can never compare to the benefits offered by a loving male protector.
Final misstep aside, Thomas Cailley’s Les Combattants has an energy and lightness that is all too often lacking in contemporary French drama. Casting aside the genre’s habitual obsession with philosophical abstraction and middle-aged protagonists, this is a film about today’s problems and today’s youth. Sweet, funny, romantic and absolutely beautiful to look at, Les Combattants is exactly what young adult cinema should be like. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen may be a hollow corporate fantasy but Adèle Haenel’s Mathilde is a thoroughly modern woman.