Film Review: Love at First Fight (★★★)

LoveAtFirstFight_LORES_USposterAs we all know, the commercial success of a film can largely be attributed to its marketing. Distributors can attest that even the re-titling of foreign language films is often a marketing decision. This fact was constantly on my mind as I watched this debut feature from French director Thomas Cailley. After winning the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes last year, Les Combattants has now crossed the Atlantic with the new name Love at First Fight, clearly targeting a female audience. However I much prefer the direct translation of its French title – Fighters – which is more reflective of this unorthodox love story.

Love at First Fight takes place one summer in a small town in France. It’s the home of Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), a carefree young man who enjoys relaxing with his friends while searching for direction in his life. Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) on the other hand, has no such time to waste. She spends her free time getting ready for army boot camp in order to improve her survival skills. The two are polar opposites, but their lives become intimately linked one day during an army recruitment event. Arnaud’s friends have signed him up for a self defense demonstration, where he ends up having to tussle with Madeleine. Underestimating her strength, he’s humiliated when she quickly pins him down. The encounter has a strong effect on him however, as it leaves him so smitten by this mysterious girl that he eventually signs up to join her in the boot camp. As they embark on this seminal experience, the duo soon find that their ideas of love and war don’t pan out like they expected.

As I hinted at above, the film barely feels like a romance film for the most part. Though Arnaud is motivated by his affection, he initially makes little headway in his courtship of the gravely serious Madeleine. Indeed, she has no notion of “happily ever after”, seeing as she’s convinced herself that the apocalypse is nigh. The story thus has more in common with high school summer comedies like The Kings of Summer than a cliché romcom.

It isn’t until our protagonists rebel against their mutual disappointment in the army that they foster a romantic connection. This romance comes at cost though, necessitating a shift in the power dynamics between the tougher Madeleine and the lovelorn Arnaud. It’s a questionable choice that still leaves me skeptical in the days after viewing the film, as it somewhat betrays Madeleine’s resilient character. However, it fits in with the film’s central themes of adaptation and survival (and begrudgingly, love).
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Cailley doesn’t display much by way of a distinctive style in Love at First Fight, but his direction and script (co-written with Claude Le Pape) give the actors room to breathe with their performances. Kévin Azaïs and Adèle Haenel play their roles supremely well and are the main reason to watch the film. There’s a longing in Azaïs’ eyes like a thirsty man spotting an oasis in the desert, while Haenel’s piercing glare and assertive physicality capture Madeleine’s personality perfectly. The humor and intrigue they bring in both their individual scenes and their interactions with each other will surely make this one of the more broadly appealing films of this summer.

Love at First Fight releases in select theaters May 22, 2015.