Saturday, May 30, 2015

New movie review: Love at First Fight

Adele Haenel and Kevin Azais star in Thomas Cailley's beautiful Love at First Fight.

For the purposes of this conversation, let’s redefine what we mean when we say “summer movie.” I am sure most of you who care to will have seen Avengers: Age of Ultron or Mad Max: Fury Road by now. Perhaps, you are looking forward to Jurassic World or some other big-money blockbuster. These are the movies we talk about when we talk about summer movie-going now. It is not a problem. It is just the way it is. But, let’s pretend for a moment it does not have to be that way.

Think very hard about your childhood or teenage years or, hell, even that weird nether-zone between the end of high school and the beginning of adulthood. What defined those times best? For a vast majority of you, it was not robots, explosions, and non-stop action – unless you spent your summers at the movies, but bear with me here. No, summer means lazy days hanging out with your friends, not taking your part-time job quite seriously enough, and maybe a new girl or guy catching your eye.

The French festival hit Love at First Fight is one of the few movies to get the feeling of summer just right. From first-time feature director Thomas Cailley, Love at First Fight has an innate understanding of what it is like to watch the sun come up, go down, and come back up without having truly done anything during the long spaces in between. The days blend together into a haze, and the future is just an abstract concept as far off and insignificant as boats on the horizon.

Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) is a college dropout living with her well-off parents who plans to join the army. She signs up for an intensive two-week training course with the Army Rangers, not out of a sense of nationalistic pride but for fear of an impending apocalypse and a desire to be prepared. She is a smart, strong young woman with a fiercely independent streak. She is the kind of heroine we rarely see in American films – give or take a Tomorrowland.

If Madeleine is perhaps too focused on her preparations for the end of days, Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) maybe has too little focus at all. He crashes parties with his friends, shows the minimum amount of interest in the army to get the free blow-up mattress the recruiters promised, and generally seems unenthused by the family landscaping business. Arnaud and Madeleine strike up an uneasy friendship – because she is guarded and he lacks confidence – as he builds a pool house in her family’s backyard. He signs up for the training course in part to follow her but also to give his days a sense of structure, direction, and purpose.

These early passages are shot through with care and sensitivity by Cailley and cinematographer David Cailley, the director’s brother. There is a glossiness to everything that evokes youth, nostalgia, and memory in ways that are both universal and specific to these characters’ experiences. After a long night out at the club, it is dawn, and Madeleine and Arnaud are walking back home with two of his friends. The friends stop at the beach, strip down, and run into the water. Madeleine decides she would rather go home.

After trying for a moment to convince her to stay, Arnaud lets her leave. We do not see her walk away, but through Azaïs’ performance and the way camera lingers on his face as he watches her, we know instinctively what he feels. Her leaving marks the end of one day but the beginning of another, and as Arnaud wades slowly into the glistening water, the sun hovers at the edge of the frame, reminding us of what the sun always reminds us of: the march of time and the endless possibilities of the new day.

Haenel and Azaïs are marvelous throughout the movie, and Cailley’s breezy script establishes their characters early and with efficiency. Madeleine is the kind of person who thinks nothing of strapping 30 pounds of weights to her back and dropping into the ocean – whatever it takes to be prepared. Arnaud, on the other hand, will drop his work at a moment’s notice to ride hours out of town on his motorbike to do a favor. That the little work he accomplished is wiped away by a storm in his absence only drives the point home further. To him, nothing is so important it cannot be put off until later.

This established dichotomy sets up a beautiful switch when they arrive at the training camp. He takes to it easily, and she is absolutely stifled. The reversal is well earned and perfectly in keeping with who these characters are. Of course Arnaud takes to the regimentation of the army. He just needs someone to point him in a direction, and he will start walking. Madeleine, however, is not built to take orders or become a cog in some greater wheel. Her goal is to be the whole damn machine.

Because this is no place for her, she heads off into the woods, and because as ever, he just needs a direction, he follows her. This sets up the film’s gorgeous final act, which I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say they learn what it really takes to survive apart from the rest of the world. “Knowing how to pass the time – not doing or thinking about anything in particular – that’s surviving,” he tells her. No matter where you are or who you are with, life is about filling those endless days when nothing may happen, but it feels like anything could. That is survival. That is summer.

See it? Yes.

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