Les Combattants/Love at First Fight (2014)

Sweet and surprising French comedy-drama.

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‘I don’t hit girls’

That’s how Arnaud (Kevin Azais) reacts when he’s been coerced into a surprise beach wrestling match with Madeleine (Adele Hanael). I can relate. I don’t hit girls. Saying that, I don’t hit boys either. So yeah, bless Arnaud and his dilemma, but if his female opponent has stepped into the ring by choice, odds are she knows she can take him on. And yes, she kicks his arse. Madeleine is a focused, prepared, humourless and tough-as-nails young woman who spends her spare time training for whatever impending apocalypse may be looming around the corner. Arnaud seems happy just to stay at home for the summer and work with his brother in their self-employed trade as builders. In fact, their latest job turns out to be at Madeleine’s house, where her parents would like a poolside shed installed.

As Arnaud continues with his work and Madeleine practices combat swimming (with spare building equipment crammed in her rucksack to add extra pressure to her training), the two get to know each in the barest minimum way. She’s taciturn to say the least, but Arnaud’s intrigued, and when he discovers that she wants to join the army (and not just the lower ranks – she wants to join the hardcorps, where you are pushed to the limit), he volunteers to take her to the next town so that she can enlist for a two week training camp. In a moment of recklessness, Arnaud enlists too, even if it means temporarily leaving his brother in the lurch.

This is one of those small but perfectly executed films, and a really enaging one too. There are lots of great little moments, especially between our two leads, who have an awkward but gradually special connection. It is a romance – you could almost say a romantic comedy, but despite the tone being light and energetic, it’s not exactly that either. There are no comic set-pieces or gags as such. It’s simply a drama with humour (hmm, that’s not as marketable as ‘rom-com’, I’ll admit) as well as charm, life, and oomph. It’s also beautifully filmed – a sequence at a lake late on in the film is particularly nice. Admittedly, Arnaud and Madeleine are not quite an equal double-act – the story is mostly told from Arnaud’s point-of-view, but Madeleine’s the more fascinating of the two, mainly because she’s the more beguiling, complex character, I suppose. Still, they make a great couple, and I found the ending particularly satisfying. A great little film.

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