Les combattants is essentially a love story, but the movie is at its best when it forgets that. There’s Arnaud, a carpenter who helps his older brother build pergolas in other people’s gardens. He looks on as the daughter of their latest customers fills a backpack with roof tiles and jumps into the family pool. He fears she might drown. “It’s combative swimming,” she replies, as if she did that every day. She does. Later, he will give her a ferret as a pet.
She also puts a whole fish in a blender and drinks it all. “I have to prepare for the end,” she says, although she doesn’t know exactly what that end might look like. Madeleine is not a gun-toting tomboy, nor a pessimist, but a young woman who thinks it’s her best choice to enrol in the French territorial army. She can be outgoing, but chooses to stay silent because she is not too good with people. She seems constantly on the brink of exhaustion, what with all that survival training. When Arnaud sees her, he is not love-struck at first, but curious enough about her to enrol alongside her. Madeleine has not much of a clue that he might like her. She takes his tagging along with a shrug.
Almost none of the scenes play out the way you think. There is a very tender moment where they paint each other’s face with camouflage colors. Another scene shows raindrops on her naked skin. Arnaud is fascinated, but all Madeleine wants is for him to punch her. Madeleine realises that the military is actually not hard-core enough for her, so she and Arnaud desert into the woods. There is a surreal scene at a gas station where they seem to grow apart, but actually find something out about each other. Arnaud doesn’t have much interest in joining the army, Madeleine wants it far too much.
The film avoids almost all of the clichés of boy meets girl or of the army. By the end of the movie, the two of them have grown closer together – in what way is for you to decide. Les combattants shows you fresh faces and an unusual story, told in an unusual way. Arnaud is played by Kévin Azaïs, slightly dorky and clueless about who he wants to be; Madeleine is played by Adèle Haenel, and I have a hunch that she might go on making good to great movies.