There are a few titles for this charming French teen romance. There’s the title this review is written under, which is by far and away the best even though it’s just a direct translation of ‘Fighters’. Fighters is okay and while is a little on the nose it does get to the heart of this drama where the two sparring would-be first time lovers. Love At First Fight, as it’s called in America, is just, frankly, urggghhh.
But the different titles available say something about the story itself: unwilling to be a clichéd teen romance, it branches out to explore different things, making it hard to pin down - this movie is going to mean different things to different people.
Arnaud (Azais) spends the summer helping his older brother with their small business of building pool cabins. He falls for the Madeleine (Haenel), a spikey teen who has no interest in Arnaud, boys, or anything other than apocalypse survival training. Convinced that the end is nigh, Madeleine signs up for a summer army camp and Arnaud, smitten, follows suit. However, it’s Arnaud that impresses the taskmasters while Madeleine struggles through the assault course...
Those watching with the right kind of eyes will see Les Combattants has a toe in the knockabout antics of 80s teen summer movies like Meatballs, One Crazy Summer and Poison Ivy. It’s in the synth soundtrack. It’s in uncool summer job, it’s in the hottie sunbathing by the pool, it’s in the wacky supporting characters.
But it’s just a toe, mind. The uncool summer job is actually Arnaud’s father’s business, who has just died before the opening credits and we first meet Arnaud building his father’s coffin - you wouldn’t have Patrick Dempsey or John Cusack at that in 1986. The hottie by the pool, Madeleine, is not framed to be ogled at: Arnaud doesn’t peer over fences at her glistening body, she doesn’t ask to have sun cream applied, and she’s not in with the cool crowd. And Les Combattants is unlikely to date as badly as its 80s forefathers.
While Madeleine is the object of affection Adele Haenel’s eye-catching performance turns it into her movie. She’s tough, beautiful, real and Haenel’s tough/softie turn manages to flesh out her underwritten backstory (she won a Cesar Award for the role).
Trying to figure out where this relaxed/lazy movie is going and why is work but when it takes an unexpected turn in the third act it’s best to just go with the flow.