This non-conformist dramedy marks the dynamic debut of Thomas Cailley
Otherwise known as Love at First Fight, Les Combattants is the knockout first feature from French writer-director Thomas Cailley, the winner of awards at Cannes 2014 and the 2015 Césars. Buoyed by its wit, charismatic leads and renegade spirit, it's the tale of two small-town outsiders and their wild adventure, which takes a lead from Britain's own survivalist loon Bear Grylls (briefly seen stuffing himself into the carcass of a camel).
Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) is a cross between Grylls and The Bridge's socially inept Saga. Apocalypse-obsessed and determined to make life as difficult as possible, she first encounters the affable Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) when she wrestles him humiliatingly to the ground during an army self-defence demo. He's immediately smitten: a loyal puppy to her sulky, hissing cat. Arnaud lets his responsibility to the family business slide when he decides to follow Madeleine to an army training camp, but her non-conformist attitude and knack for rubbing people up the wrong way creates bother for them both.
Flanked by a fun electro score from Hit 'n' Run that whizzes, throbs and races, lending proceedings an upbeat, fizzy feel, Cailley's debut (beautifully shot by his brother David, and co-written with Claude Le Pape) is an ace of a calling card. Though it features both romance and comedy it categorically rejects the rom-com template, plumping for role reversal and shifting to its own beat. Haenel and Azaïs pitch their performances shrewdly and prove hugely likeable, while the film's askew humour is similarly deftly judged, never overwhelming the story; matters don't descend into outright hilarity, with Les Combattants refusing to resort to ridicule lest it diminish the essential emotional investment. It's undeniably on the slight side but this is an endearingly scrappy film with a fighter's spunk and a lover's heart that doesn't surrender to sentimentality.
Selected release from Fri 19 Jun.