Netflix Review: ‘LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT (LES COMBATTANTS)’ Throws Punches At The MPDG Trope

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

This originally ran on VeryAware.com

LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT (LES COMBATTANTS) | 98 min | UR
Director: Thomas Cailley
Cast: Adèle Haenel, Kévin Azaïs, Antoine Laurent and Brigitte Roüan

The “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope has taken its fair share of beatings in many critics’ reviews. Some find it a sexist and reductive term to label women as such. Personally, I have no problems with this description as it usually extends beyond their one dimensional character facet – and can be used as an equal opportunity term to describe the opposite sex. Never is this romcommy device more evident than in Thomas Cailley’s LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT. Here, the prototypical American rom-com genre crosses the Atlantic only to bastardize the independent French cinema scene. With a subdued albeit quirky setup, Cailley’s romcom drags its way through the muck of predictability before coming to a screeching halt.

Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs, who looks like a cross between Jai Courtney and Vincent Cassell) is an aimless young man in search of what to do with his summer in his tiny seaside town. His father has recently passed away, leaving him and his responsible older brother, Manu (Antoine Laurent) the family business building sheds. However, when scoping out the Army recruitment center to get a free blowup mattress, he meets the woman who’ll change his life – Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), an abrasive tomboy hell-bent on becoming a survivalist. Fate again forces the pair together when her parents hire Manu and Arnaud to build a shed in their backyard. As the duo engage in somewhat of a chaste courtship, Arnaud finds he wants to be wherever Madeleine is – even if that means joining the army, or at least attending the same basic training camp.

There’s not much in LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT that

Kévin Azaïs and Adèle Haenel in LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Kévin Azaïs and Adèle Haenel in LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

really pays off how you think it should. Maybe that qualifies it as “disarming,” but its sluggishly-paced efforts to hit the genre’s traditional plot beats prove otherwise – it’s mostly boring. In any other film, the shed and the ferret’s survival would be metaphors for the couple’s relationship. As it stands, Cailley and Claude Le Pape’s screenplay only half goes there with the concept. Symbolism with the catfish Arnaud and his pals catch also doesn’t go anywhere – it feels unnecessary. Even Madeleine’s stereotypically, off-beat nature fails to be fully realized. Haenel, who’s been consistently transcendent in films like SUZANNE, THREE WORLDS and ALIYAH, is constrained, never going beyond uptight and socially awkward to make audiences care about her or her relationship with Arnaud. It’s surprising she won a Cesar for her performance here.

Arnaud’s equally as frustrating as the character’s irresponsibility and aimlessness read as unlikable, not endearing. Some might blame it on youthful naiveté, but really these two are old enough to know better. I mean, Arnaud gets Madeleine to abandon her dreams of being a bad-ass survivalist to be a homeless wanderer, and then he saves her (in more ways than one) at the end. Though she softens her harshness, she never has “the moment” where she rescues herself – a moment this film could have used.

While I can appreciate Cailley’s authentic version of “the MPDG” trope in LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT, it’s not as effective as it could have been. The sentiment is there, as is the sweet set-up for charming rom-com fodder – it just lacks a good script with compelling narrative drive.

LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT (LES COMBATTANTS) premiered at the ColCoa Film Festival on April 25, 2015. It’s now available to stream on Netflix Instant.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.