Thomas Cailley’s first feature-length film Les Combattants went home with a slew of prizes from February’s film award season. Three Césars including best first film for Cailley, best actress for Adèle Haenel and best male newcomer for Kevin Azaïs as well as best first film and best male newcomer at the Cérémonie des Prix Lumières, known as the French Golden Globes. There’s no doubt Les Combattants is a highly accomplished debut. Haenel and Azaïs make an intriguing couple and it is an original take on the traditional coming-of-age film. It’s not often a burgeoning love affair is set against the backdrop of an army boot camp and under the shadow of a possible apocalypse. But whether it deserved to beat Jeanne Herry’sElle l’adore for the best first film Cesar or Vincent Mariette’s Tristesse Clubin the same category for the Prix Lumières is up for debate. There’s a lot to admire in Les Combattants, but nothing that stands out as truly exceptional.
After the death of his father Arnaud (Azaïs) spends the summer working alongside his brother in the family carpentry business in south west France. His plans stretch no further than work and hanging out with his friends. By chance, he meets the beautiful, pugilistic Madeleine (Haenel) when the two are pitted against each in a self defense class on the beach. They meet again when Arnaud is commissioned to build a pool house for Madeleine’s parents giving him the opportunity to observe the young woman at close quarters and to gradually fall in love. But romance is far from Madeleine’s mind. She is convinced the end of the world is nigh and is determined to learn the skills she will need in a post-apocalyptic universe. She signs up with the Army for a two week boot camp and Arnaud decides to go with her. But the training course leads to more than a simple exercise in survival.
Alongside the romance, this is the traditional story of two young people who at first glance are world’s apart but who are both looking for meaning and direction. Madeleine pours her energy into a masochistic, punishing regime in preparation for the world’s end in while simultaneously spouting nihilistic views. She presents a tough exterior which is just a thin veneer hiding her insecurities and self-doubt. Arnault is the more interesting character, a young man without ambition who discovers a surprising strength and determination that will carry him through to adulthood. For a film about young love, there an almost prudish lack of sex which rings false. Living rough in the forest with acres of time on their hands, these two hormonally-charged youngsters find nothing better to do than swim, fish and hunt and this is a French film! Both actors deserve their individual awards, although Haenel gave a more complex performance as Agnés in André Téchiné’s L’Homme qu’on aimait trop (In the Name of my Daughter). Add in top class cinematograhy by David Cailley and Les Combattants certainly leaves the audience keen to see what the brothers will come up with next.