Fight or flight? Madeleine and Artaud are the lost lovers of Les combattants
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Make love at war: French film Les combattants has its protagonists kiss over a gun

It takes a lot to keep an audience onside when it’s not clear what the thrust of a film is, but Les combattants manages it.

Les combattants (15)
dir: Thomas Cailley

Ralph Fiennes was not slow to whip out his needle and thread after tearing Kristin Scott Thomas’s blouse during a moment of passion in The English Patient. On the whole, though, it’s unusual in a film to see a man tending to a woman’s appearance if he is something other than her Gay Best Friend. So the scene in Les combattants in which a young man applies make-up to the face of the woman with whom he is infatuated is mildly revolutionary.

There’s an extra twist. This isn’t Urban Decay that he’s smoothing lovingly on to her skin; it’s camouflage paint and the pair of them are at a boot camp for the 1st Parachute Dragoon Regiment, where they have come to prepare themselves for the imminent breakdown of civilisation. “Make Love, Not War” is all very well. But why does it have to be either/or?

It is not until halfway through Les combattants that the first-time director Thomas Cailley starts to reveal what his film might be about. The terrible English-language title, Love at First Fight, is only part of the story. Artaud (Kévin Azaïs) doesn’t have a cruel bone in his body. When called upon to wrestle with Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) in a self-defence class on the beach, he protests at first: “I’m not fighting a girl!” Then she pins him. She’s trouble; he’s smitten.

When Madeleine comes over to eat with his family, her mealtime conversation is all end-of-the-world this, plague-of-locusts that. Artaud, innocent and gape-mouthed at the best of times, tries to join in: “Things look pretty dismal.” Any despair he might feel is eclipsed by his giddiness about this new friend. He watches sceptically as she completes laps of the pool while wearing a rucksack packed with roof tiles (“the combat swim”) but when she signs up to boot camp, he’s right there beside her.

Their friendship is unorthodox long before she presents to him, as a gift, a pile of frozen chicks to feed to his ferret. (He pops them in the microwave like an M&S ready-meal and watches them rotate spookily as they thaw.) So it’s only right that their first kiss occurs over the barrel of a gun that Madeleine is pointing into Artaud’s torso. Where this initially amorphous film finds its shape is in wondering where a relationship might go when the sparks abate and the warning shots have died down.

It takes a lot to keep an audience onside when it’s not clear what the thrust of a film is, or even what genre the work belongs to. Are we in the future? Has the end of the world already happened? Probably not. But the streets of this French coastal town are deserted and there is a listlessness among its population. “France is dead,” says one of Artaud’s friends. “There’s no future here.”

The bright, footloose cinematography (by the director’s brother David Cailley) keeps our interest piqued by replicating Artaud’s sensuous wonder at the world around him. But Les combattants would be half the film it is without the busy-bee score by the electro trio Hit’n’Run, which hints at an energy that isn’t always visible. Cailley uses the beeping, bristling music at unusual moments of inactivity so that what we hear does not always match what we see. A static close-up of Artaud seems not to demand a burst of energising techno until it becomes apparent that we’re tapping in to the hormonal circuit-board behind that serene and innocent face.

This tension between stillness and chaos is most fully realised in the film’s critical sequence, in which Artaud and Madeleine break away from their platoon in the sort of pastoral digression enjoyed by the lovers in Badlands or Moonrise Kingdom. “What now?” asks Madeleine, who is not at all relaxed about relaxing. “Nothing,” Artaud replies. “We just enjoy.” This leaves her flummoxed. “What’s the goal? What’s the point?” she insists. But his answer is the same: “Nothing.”

There is a satisfying circularity when this film, which has requested all along the forbearance of its audience, starts demanding the same of Madeleine. For the first time, she has nothing to lash out at, or to arm herself against. The apocalypse she can deal with; it’s contentment and tranquillity that are frightening.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.