First-time feature filmmaker Thomas Cailley takes a few pages out of the David O. Russell playbook of quirked-out schmaltz with Love at First Fight, a film that even outwardly seeks to replicate the against-the-odds romance at the heart of Silver Linings Playbook, only instead of sentimentalizing mental illness through tough-guy posturings, here the masculine woofing takes its dual-sex protagonists to boot camp, where they learn to stay “on their guard” shortly after fucking on a beach, and in the rain. In fact, the majority of Love at First Fight aims for a middle ground between humorous and awkward, epitomized by an opening scene in which brothers Arnaud (Kevin Azaïs) and Manu (Antoine Laurent) bicker with a funeral director about the quality of wood and price of their father’s coffin, before deciding to build their own. The contestations between the brothers and the salesman turns to familial strife as the men set out to work construction together, which turns to battle-of-the-sexes fisticuffs when Arnaud is asked to engage in a self-defense lesson at a military recruiting exercise with Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), who puts Arnaud on the mat before he resorts to biting her in order to win the match, which Madeleine subsequently uses as evidence to feminize Arnaud’s fighting skills.
The film’s original French title, Les Combattants, or The Fighters, lays bare Cailley’s trite wager, where the film’s focus on physical sparing speaks to deeper, but falsely humanistic concerns about each character’s capacity for emotional endurance. These metaphorical aspirations receive literal treatment in a few scenes, namely one featuring a rainstorm that blows down the shoddy foundation Arnaud laid for a garden shelter, which prompts him to ship off for boot camp. Likewise, when he punches a sign outside of a nightclub, two men dressed in fatigues saunter up to teach Arnaud how to “strike beyond your target.” Cailley plays these moments with consequence, but without severity, which causes the film’s dramatic aims to take a hit in favor of a more supple treatment of mid-20s angst. The film’s assertions, then, are less caustic than cloying, like when Madeleine kisses Arnaud after he lectures her about concentration and survival.
Love at First Fight features numerous moments that offer only nascent formations of gendered identity commentary, even though the film’s primary emphasis on sex-based scenes of conflict derives from the screwball comedy. When Madeleine and Arnaud both apply camouflage to one another’s face, it’s Cailley’s most inspired visual cue, blurring divisions of self, particularly as Arnaud clinically instructs her how to “apply it with two fingers in diagonal streaks.” Much of Cailley and co-writer Claude Le Pape’s dialogue lands somewhere within this instructional register, such that the sensuality of the film’s best moments derives from an investment in locating the socially formative qualities of human touch, whether between friends, lovers, or combatants. Yet Cailley neglects to strike beyond the confines of this rather simple target by relegating his characters to a precious state, where their youth and class privilege insure safety from any real danger.
The film’s final third challenges the couple’s protection through a bizarre turn in which a forest fire and subsequent ash storm threatens their lives, with Arnaud lugging Madeleine to safety. A key scene comes between Arnaud and Manu, who debate the cause of fires; Manu claims that “some idiot” likely tossed out a still-lit cigarette, but Arnaud contests that these fires can start organically, without intrusion, when there’s no more space left for trees to grow. Neither a full-blooded statement on environmentalism or a satisfactory summation for the film’s examination of young love, everything about Love at First Fight plays like imitation or only partially conceived; even Arnaud’s insistence that “everything burns” is a line lifted from the Joker in The Dark Knight. Transparently wearing metaphors on its singed sleeves, Love at First Fight shuttles around courses of meaning and significance without committing to any, which strands the film within middlebrow terrain, somewhere between pop romance and more searing satire.