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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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