LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT (2015) review
written by: Thomas Cailley and Clause Le Pape
produced by: Pierre Guyard
directed by: Thomas Cailley
runtime: 98 min.
U.S. release date: May 29, 2015 (limited release)
For its U.S. release, it would’ve been more interesting for “Love at First Fight” to have gone with it’s French title “Le Combatants”, or “The Fighters”. It would’ve been more accurate too. I’d definitely check out a rom-com from France with such a title. I’m more intrigued in contentious relations than I am romantic ones, but then again I also trust independent rom-coms from Europe to offer something with a little more originality than I would any movie from the States in that genre. That’s what director/co-writer Thomas Cailley manages to do with his directorial feature debut.
Cailley’s film takes place in a modern-day coastal town in France and is centered around Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) and Madeleine (Adèle Haenel, also currently in “In the Name of My Daughter”), two very different twentysomethings that do indeed fight the first time they meet. A physical fight that is, during a self-defense demonstration on a beach, provided by the French army, who happen to be cruising the coasts for young recruits. It’s a brief tussle that ends in Arnaud biting Madeleine. That’ll leave a mark (and form a connection to its punny title). Not just a physical one, but an indelible one that finds these two strangers meeting again through coincidence and slowly (not Arnaud’s choice) acknowledging an attraction.
Neither of them have a firm grasp on their future plans, let alone their summer plans, although Madeleine’s obsession with preparing for the apocalypse has her more occupied than Arnaud. His only obligations are to continue to work with his older brother, Manu (Antoine Laurent), as they run their recently deceased father’s woodcutting business. That’s how Arnaud meets Madeleine again, building a shed near her parent’s swimming pool. He shows an interest in her – at first because of her looks – then because he feels sorry for biting her and then on account of how committed she is to preparing for the end of the world.
That’s right, for unknown reasons, Cailley and co-writer, Claude Le Pape, have written the brooding and somewhat off-putting character of Madeleine as one who is obsessed in preparing her mind and body to survive. Dropping out of college where she focused on “economic modeling”, Madeleine runs, swims and commits herseld to self-defense, both physically and psychologically. Much of the comedy of the film relies on her behavior: her afternoon snack consists of a whole sardine pureed into a nasty-looking drink. Nevertheless, she’s an intriguing person to study on-screen, mainly due to Haenel’s intense expressions, poised body language and how she has Madeleine slowly peel back layers that have the character see how difficult she’s being with Arnaud, who clearly likes her.
Since Arnaud really has nothing going on, apart from hanging with his equally aimless pals, he soon takes on Madeleine’s interests. He offers her a lift on his motorcycle to the next town over where the recruiters have moved on to in order for Madeleine to enlist in a 2-week boot camp survival course. In a rom-com from a U.S. studio, this is the opportunity for these two characters to move forward in their inevitable romance, but Cailley and Le Pape consider a more natural route. On the way back, the two find an abandoned garage to wait out a rainstorm, which provides them a moment to connect. If we followed standard rom-com conventions, here is where the two would kiss, but instead we find them practicing punches on each other. Except that Arnaud doesn’t hit girls, just like he said during the initial encounter, something Madeleine reminds him of “I know. You bite.”
With a little help from Arnaud, Madeleine is accepted into the 2-week program and much to his family’s surprise, he winds up following in her footsteps. That doesn’t last long though. Arnaud actually does well, fitting in as a natural leader in a structured environment of peers, earning the respect of the drill sergeants in charge. The contradictory Madeleine experiences the exact opposite, disappointed that the course has luxuries like cafeteria food instead of roughing in the woods. The two leave their regimen, spurred by their own fallout and inevitably wind up on their own in the wilderness with limited resources.
Eventually, they make the most of it, with Arnaud fastening a shelter and Madeleine laying traps around the parameter. Away from anyone else, Madeleine finally lets her guard down and actually has a good time, offering her trust and affection to the patient and kind Arnaud. However, a local forest fire threatens the two would-be warriors and then soon find themselves wondering if Madeleine’s predictions have come to pass, putting their survival skills to the test.
The highlight of the film is watching Azaïs and Haenel portray this bickering yet attractive mismatched duo. The ginger-haired Azaïs, with his chiseled cheeks and observant eyes compliment Haenel’s piercing stares and tightly-wound stance. Watching the two as their characters figure themselves and each other out is an absorbing draw for the audience, especially since at no time do you really care if they hook up. Regardless, interest and curiosity build as the film slowly works its way to a satisfactory development.
Unsurprisingly, “Love at First Fight” has been making it’s rounds on the film festival circuit since it’s debut at Cannes in 2014 and that’s exactly what the film feels like – one of those easy-going, pleasurable viewing experiences at a film festival, introducing you to filmmakers and actors you have likely never heard of. It’s already received various nominations and awards and is currently getting a limited theatrical release in the U.S. and it’s good timing too, offering a nice art-house alternative to all the multiplex blockbusters that saturate the current season.