An off-kilter and provocative teen love story, ‘Les Combattants’ is a great showcase for rising French star Adèle Haenel, first seen in 2007’s ‘Water Lillies’. Here she plays Madeleine, an aggressively unromantic young woman in a southern French coastal town who’s obsessed with the army, survival techniques and ideas of apocalypse.
She meets local boy Arnaud (Kévin Azäis) for the first time when they’re both sniffing around an army recruitment post, and again when he and his brother, both carpenters, come to work on her parents’ garden. Later on, now friends, they attend the same army training course and find their relationship strangely challenged…
Director and co-writer Thomas Cailley conjures up a vivid, unusual world, offering a playful reversal of usual gender roles. Arnaud has to stand by and watch as Madeleine takes a long, long time to drop her macho mask – and thankfully, when she does it’s not at the expense of these gently established characters.
There’s a streak of black comedy throughout, and the film is unobtrusively literary in its light allegorical touch, and its marshalling of themes to do with nature and survival. You won’t find late romantic fireworks here: when things do set alight, they do so in an unpredictable, challenging way