by Kathie Smith
One of the unfortunate effects of the non-too-clever English title of Thomas Cailley’s Love at First Fight (which completely discards the original French title Les combattants) is the unintentional association with Stan Dragoti’s spoofy 1979 vampire film Love at First Bite. In a perfect world, that accidental reference won’t be a part of your memory bank because the intentions behind the cheeky wordsmithing—to underscore this movie’s comical qualities—couldn’t be more dead on. Although you would never know it from the synopsis (an apathetic young man falls in love with a combative young woman with survivalist ambitions), Love at First Fight is nothing short of a screwball comedy with some 21st century dystopian ethos and mild social commentary thrown in for good measure.
The Film Society of Minneapolis St Paul
Director: Thomas Cailley
Producer: Pierre Guyard
Writers: Thomas Cailley, Claude Le Pape
Cinematographer: David Cailley
Editor: Lilian Corbeille
Music: Philippe Dashaies, Lionel Flairs, Benoit Rault
Cast: Adèle Haenel, Kévin Azaïs, Antoine Laurent, Brigitte Roüan, William Lebghil, Thibaut Berducat, Nicolas Wanczycki, Frédéric Pellegeay, Steve Tientcheu
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Premiere: May 17, 2014
US Theatrical Release: May 22, 2015
US Distributor: Strand Releasing
The language might not match the rapid-fire speed of Hollywood’s best screwball comedies, but Love hits the target by focusing on the inclinations of the under-represented (in this case, idle lower-middle class youth living in small town nowhere) and featuring the strident eccentricities of the female lead. And why shouldn’t the 21st century have its own screwball corollary? We may not be rebounding from anything like the Great Depression, but we are certainly caught in a dark and disturbing point in our social evolution. The Coen Brothers (Intolerable Cruelty) and David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster) are often cited for neo- screwball work, but where they seem to be creating wit for wit’s sake—something that can be grating at best, patronizing at worst—Cailley delivers his wit with a very humanizing heart.
The movie opens with Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) and his older brother Manu (Antoine Laurent) schooling a casket salesman on the poor grade of wood that he’s trying to sell them for their father’s casket. They are contractors, or at least that was the trade of their father, and while Manu is committed to carrying on what his father started, Arnaud is at the point in his life where he must commit to the family business or follow other pursuits. He is pulled between the ennui of his friends who see France as nothing but a dead end and loyalty to his family. Suddenly, yet another force enters his orbit, forcing Arnaud to question his future: Madeleine (Adèle Haenel). While feigning interest in the French Army with his friends (presumably for the free air mattress), Arnaud gets railroaded into fighting an unsmiling, rock solid young woman as some sort of test of mettle and physical ingenuity. First fight—check; love (albeit somewhat latent at this point)—check.
Madeleine has abandoned her academic pursuits in macroeconomics with a deep seeded conviction that social collapse—from any number of causes—is eminent. By her estimation, the French military is the best equipped to train and prepare her for the coming apocalypse. When Arnaud and his brother coincidentally land a job at Madeleine’s parents house, Arnaud gets to observe some of her survivalist training (like loading her backpack up with weight and swimming at the bottom of the pool) and he is hopelessly smitten with her tough and brusque manner. She shares her plans to enlist in a two-week preparatory boot camp for interested recruits, and the somewhat apathetic Arnaud sees this as an opportunity to follow his mother’s advice of trying new things (although I don’t think the army was what she had in mind).
Ironically, Arnaud excels with little effort at the training camp where Madeleine’s gender and more intense demeanor finds very few fans. She calls her teachers out on explaining tactics and is frustrated by her accommodations with a real bed. An argument between who is dead and who is alive in a paintball match ends with Madeleine head-butting a macho know-it-all unconscious. Things get much more interesting when Madeleine and Arnaud decide that the camp was not what they had expected and go rogue, giving Arnaud a chance to be with Madeleine and giving Madeleine a real test of her survival skills.
One of the charming things about Love at First Fight is that it works seamlessly with movie magic to present its story. The characters are rich and authentic but the scenarios they are thrown into—for purposes of an engaging narrative—are not. Cailley’s commentary on French youth and gender roles embraces dubious setups and eventual melodrama that never diverts away from a love story of compatible opposites. The layers of Arnaud and Madeleine’s personalities are allowed to naturally reveal themselves in one another’s presence—the wherewithal below Arnaud’s ambivalence and the joy underneath Madeleine’s austerity—in an unaffected transformation of falling in love that is rarely seen on screen.
The movie’s finale—which is unexpectedly dark and surreal—might be an attempt to come full circle and enable Arnaud to become the hero he never thought himself to be, but it also means a shift back to traditional male-female roles found on screen. This would only be a disappointment if the rest of the movie didn’t exist. Arnaud and Madeleine live and breathe outside the boundaries of any stereotypes so that the circumstances do not deter the notion that Madeleine will be digging the well while Arnaud will be doing the laundry. Love at First Fight’s sparks might be slight, but they are unique to the tropes of movies, dramatic or romantic, comedic or thrilling, foreign or domestic. Watching the travails of two young people in love is nothing new, but finding a slice of life as idiosyncratic and distinct as found in Love at First Fight most definitely feels new.