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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage