Film Review: Les Combattants

I like foreign language films. There is something wonderfully independent about the nature and style of films produced without the demands of Hollywood number crunchers. Films made primarily to tell a story, rather than sell a franchise. Les Combattants, or Love at First Fight as it’s been translated to in places, has been niggling away at the back of my mind for a while, something about the trailer just provoking enough intrigue to warm me towards it.

While Hollywood productions have a very obvious fingerprint, so do works from elsewhere. Indian films tend to be romantic, uplifting and colourful (The Lunchbox is a good example) while French films are very character driven, looking at life through the reactions of those on screen. Two Days, One Night and Rust and Bone both good examples of the way France makes movies and it was that very character driven story that I expected to find again with Les Combattants.

Adele Haenel & Kevin Azais (Implausible) - Les Combattants

But Les Combattants doesn’t follow that path. While it has the expected small cast onto which it purely focuses, it isn’t a shallow but realistic tale of a single period of life but rather a hidden metaphorical narrative attempting to portray the twisting and evolving emotions of the main characters. Everything it wants to say it does so visually rather than audibly and while it’s not hard to pick up on the themes as they come and go, it somehow fails to really connect the characters on screen to them, they never progress beyond just being an idea presented to you in the background.

Even worse than the reluctance to really throw force behind what the film wanted you to feel was the fact that too often the characters would find themselves undertaking a situation purely to drive this hidden narrative forward usually at the expense of plausible reality. Too often I was sitting there thinking that it wasn’t possible, that they’d notice this, or realise that. The decisions they make are just too removed from real life, and too ignored and/or unquestioned by the rest of society around them to ever play out the way they do.

Aadele Haenel & Kevin Azais (Emotion) - Les Combattants

The film is also incredibly slow. French films aren’t normally quick, because they usually show real life they tick along metronomically with the passage of the sun but that works because time passes as it should. But Les Combattants is about emotions not life and so it needs to change pace. It needs to use time as a way of making you feel, of drawing you in and connecting you to the characters. When they feel worried, panicked or fear I want the pace to increase, I want my heart rate to fluster but instead it just ticks along monotonously and as a result becomes boring and cloggy. There is, one moment, where natural life forces the pace to increase for a fleeting second in the final act and it’s that brief moment when the film finally gets inside you, when you truly feel the love and warmth you’re seeing on screen but it passes too quickly and just makes you realise how lacking the rest of the film really is.

All is not lost though because the cast is brilliant. Adèle Haenel and Kévin Azaïs in the leading roles have a natural chemistry that feels so real together that you instantly forget they are simply playing a part. It’s just such a crying shame that director Thomas Cailley didn’t know how to make better use of them because visually they look perfect together. Their eyes constantly betraying a natural pull and affection that oozes from the screen but it is never backed up by the story and while Haenel and Azaïs are great, even the supporting cast is worth mentioning. Antoine Laurent and Brigitte Roüan play Azaïs’s family and bring personalities to their characters that left me wishing you could be spend more time with them and get to know them better. The cast feel human and related and are let down so badly by the plot and the pacing.

Thomas Cailley (Director) - Les Combattants

I don’t hate Les Combattants but I can’t forgive it for the fact that it’s so slow and naively implausible in how it uses its plot to force it’s narrative. It just adds together to leave me frustrated because it portrays emotion so superficially that it felt more like I was simply being told “this is love or this is pain” but in a way that meant they were just words without feeling. It needed to utilise the natural chemistry of it’s cast to draw you in and make you part of it but instead it just simmers away never confident enough to risk boiling over.

It’s a film of hidden potential that has let itself down badly. The performance of the cast is worth seeing but ultimately, the story isn’t enough to justify that expense and there are much better films out there, both in French and in emotion.

6 out of 10 stars (6 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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