The recently released Les Combattants (or Love at First Fight for the Anglophones) has received several awards in France at both Cannes and the more populist César festivals. The film is just the latest addition to a fast-expanding body of films to come under the loose heading of Hollywood-style French romantic comedies.
Rom-coms have been on the up in France in the past 20 years or so. They began to appear in the late 1990s but the trend was catalysed by the epic success of Amelie in 2001. Since then, films to cross the channel have included Priceless (2006), Heartbreaker (2010) and Populaire (2012). Rom-coms are just one example of the way in which French cinema is no longer synonymous with the European art cinema of the 1950s and 1960s which it epitomised. Just think of Luc Besson’s spectacular English-language Transporter and Taken franchises.
Like such blockbusters, French rom-coms too have assimilated into Hollywood tradition. It might feel as if these films have something different to them but the narrative pattern (itinerary even) of Hollywood rom-com is well and truly ingrained.
The plot of this latest film is a love story with a twist: lost boy falls for dream girl when she abuses him – he then follows her to army training camp.
Initially, it might seem as if you’re in a world redolent of much Francophone cinema. The film opens in a downbeat mode, with a scene in a funeral home. The screen is grey-toned and images of construction work in a windowless warehouse remind one more of the Dardenne brothers’ social dramas than Sleepless in the South of France. And the film’s initial focus on a family business run by protagonist Arnaud Labrède (Kevin Azaïs) and his older brother following their father’s death, seems to place the film comfortably in that archetypal theme of French popular filmmaking, the family.
But as the narrative progresses we find ourselves in more familiar rom-com territory. Sure, there are some inventive twists on genre conventions – the couple first lock eyes when Arnaud wrestles Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) in an amateur competition – but in the main, this is typical stuff.
The drab industrial spaces glimpsed early on give way to exhilarating views of the French Midi, including in a memorably heady sequence where the couple ride a scooter, echoing both Amelie and Priceless. And the central flirtation makes use of two classic spaces of rom-com, the beach (a place of blurred boundaries – who knows what might occur?) and the magical “green world” of Shakespearean comedy, here literalised when the couple run away from the army to a nearby forest.
The element of the film that seems to challenge genre conventions – the combative nature of their relationship – also engages traditional romantic tropes. Play-fighting in rom-coms harks back to the screwball films of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood, where it worked through tensions around women’s place in society following their mass migration into the public sphere. Then, the genre proliferated at a time of social anxiety about gender roles. I would argue that this is equally the case now.
France is broadly conservative when it comes to issues of equality. Female beauty and motherhood still hold an exceptionally high status there. But very high numbers of French women work and ideas of equality and female assertiveness are increasingly widespread, creating contradictions that are doubtless further reflected by the fact that this traditionally Catholic nation today has one of the lowest marriage rates in Europe.
Films like Les Combattants are flooding through in order to negotiate this relatively new territory. When Arnaud wrestles Madeleine, he and his buddies exchange wry observations like: “If that’s what girls are like this year, vive la France!”, playing into traditional gender stereotypes. But there’s an anarchic pleasure in watching a film where boy meets girl, tries to boss her around and she simply socks him one.
However, later Madeleine is taken ill and a forest fire, shot with apocalyptic majesty from Arnaud’s point of view, threatens. He is the one who ultimately saves the day and heroically rescues her, contributing to his fulfilment of a male coming-of-age trajectory. She, on the other hand, languishes unconscious.
So Les Combattants typifies romantic comedy in the ambivalence of its representation of women. For feminists, this has proven a troublesome genre, characterised by plenty of interest in female characters, via powerfully seductive narratives, but also the promotion of love as the cure-all that lends women’s life meaning.
Stories should not, though, be judged exclusively for their resolutions and in the end performances, novelty and aesthetics make of Les Combattants a pleasure – guilty or not – that is hard to resist.