A multiple award winner at the Director’s Fortnight sidebar of Cannes last year, Les combattants, the charming feature debut of director Thomas Cailley, finally arrives in North America under the name Love at First Fight, an unfortunate pun that does a disservice to a romantic comedy that’s much more interesting than its new title may suggest.
Cailley’s film begins with early-twenties man Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) helping his older brother (Antoine Laurent) to keep their family carpentry business afloat after their father’s death. Arnaud’s peaceful summer plans are disrupted by his meeting Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) at an army recruitment event. Madeleine’s a stern paratrooper-wannabe with a touch of a survivalist mentality, and she soundly beats Arnaud in an impromptu self-defence exercise. He’s humiliated but soon becomes smitten when Madeleine turns out to be the daughter of some prospective clients for his carpentry work.
The two become begrudging friends of sorts, with the intense Madeleine even joining Arnaud and pals for a club night out, despite the general indifference she projects towards him on most other occasions. Madeleine is primarily concerned (and arguably obsessed) with training herself to an ultimate state of peak readiness for the military, and perhaps the end of the world — something she seems to think isn’t too far away. A fun extra level to the film comes from viewing Madeleine as a hyper-tough alternative take on Adrienne Shelly’s apocalypse-inclined character from Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, coincidentally another strong directorial debut.
When Madeleine enrolls in a two-week training boot camp, Arnaud abandons his work commitments to join as well, much to his brother’s chagrin. Much to her surprise, Madeleine finds herself frustrated with the ‘cushiness’ of the camp and jumps ship with Arnaud soon in tow. And then Love at First Fight takes an unexpected route, as Cailley’s film starts to demonstrate more and more shared DNA with the films of David O. Russell, or at least his more mainstream but still somewhat kooky diversions of late. Some may not have predicted that Russell’s against-the-odds romance Silver Linings Playbook would devolve into dance competition territory; even fewer could predict Love at First Fight morphing into Moonrise Kingdom spliced with a disaster movie.
Cailley gets strong turns from his leads, particularly Haenel. Much of the strength comes from the blank nature the characters maintain throughout much of the first two acts. Both have somewhat pessimistic views of the future in front of them, as do Arnaud’s friends, and subsequently display little emotion as though fully resigned to a bleak destiny. As such, when their faces, particularly Haenel’s, light up even for a fleeting few seconds, the effect has a curious magic.
Also working some magic for the director is brother David Cailley’s cinematography, which provides some stark beauty to surround the gestating romance, some of it morbid, like a short moment in which the protagonists witness two dead chicks being defrosted in a microwave. It’s a shame that the screenplay is sometimes too literal about laying out meanings behind the images (see Arnaud punching a night club sign one night, only for two military recruiters to pop up to tell him how to strike beyond his target). Unlike the subtleties of the leads’ physical performances, the writing of Love at First Fight can occasionally be a little too transparent.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.