Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 24, 2015 6:30 pm 
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Boy meets tomboy

Love at First Fight, actual French title Les combattants ("Fighters") is a charmer that has nothing terribly unusual about it except that you never quite know where it is headed. Arnaud (the handsome and appealing Kévin Azaïs) and his brother are carrying on their father's carpentry business. He enters an impromptu military demonstration where he is knocked down by a young woman, Madeleine (the excellent Adèle Haenel of Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies). But he throws her off and wins by biting her. When he and his brother show up to build a cabin by a pool, who should be there but Madeleine.

The boys are invited to dinner there, and Madeleine turns out to full of apocalyptic ideas, a survivalist bent on entering an ultra-intense branch of the French army, or at least taking a two-week free training camp that prepares you to enlist in the program. Madeleine is crazy. But she's also exciting and different. And Arnaud, who's unformed and open to attractions, signs up for the camp and follows Madeleine. There is a fine line here between testing, competing, showing off, and courting that is deceptively smart and appealing.

Thomas Cailley films the camp so it's on a cutting edge between hard core and silly. Madeleine's extremism leads her into trouble -- more than once. When things get out of hand, she and Arnaud wind up together. The great thing about this movie is that even in the last shot, we don't know if this relationship is for a little while, or for life, or ends tomorrow -- but they're both smiling, and so are we. All along the scenes are intelligent and original. If this is even a rom-com, it's far enough from cliché for us not to think about that. Cailley has a knack for taking familiar ingredients and making them feel fresh. Images from the film are likely to stick in the mind, notably including a sequence shot during an actual disaster, a summer forest fire, where Arnaud behaves heroically.

Love at First Fight/Les combattants, 98 mins., first feature by Thomas Cailley. He studied script writing at the elite French film school La Fémis (Paris) and in 2010 directed Paris Shanghai, a short film that won a raft of international festival awards. Les combattants debuted May 2014 as part of Directors Fortnight at Cannes, showing in over 18 other international festivals. French release was 20 August 2014 to rave reviews; AlloCiné press rating 4.1. (A Variety review by Peter Debruge is somewhat tongue-in-cheek.) Shown as part of the FSLC/uniFrance-sponsored Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center in New York in March 2015, its North American premiere, where it was screened for this review. Beautiful outdoor cinematography by David Cailley (the director’s brother). A Strand Releasing release. Opened in New York on Friday, May 22, 2015 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Opened in Los Angeles on Friday, June 12, 2015 at Laemmle Theaters. Metacritic rating 63%. New on DVD in the US from Strand September 8th 2015. Recommended.

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