Like a perversely inverted companion piece to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Christophe Barratier’s insufferably precious War of the Buttons finds latent Nazi impulses in a band of cutesy-poo ragamuffins as they gallivant across the rolling hills of the French countryside. Steeped in bromidic period detail and weepy strings, this is a quintessential Weinstein-brand prestige picture, an offense-free portrait of the final days of World War II as a locus of poignantly lost innocence. It lifts the template of its source novel, about rival gangs of working-class schoolchildren, and grafts the shopworn action atop a more succulently “meaningful” social context: Diverging sharply away from both the contemporary 1961 French adaptation and its 1994 Irish remake, it takes as its backdrop the occupied days of 1944, so that its carefree schoolyard rumbles adopt the ham-fisted gravity of screamingly obvious comparisons to the real war being waged around them. In lieu of junior-class warfare with a decidedly wholesome bent, Barratier has his winsome youngsters find love and fight one another amid the legitimate turmoil of a national strike. And as if it weren’t simplistic enough, the film throws in a precariously undercover Jewish love interest, a loose-lipped nitwit primed for betrayal, and a cartoonishly unlikable Nazi officer always ready to appear and act like a real bastard. It’s all played insultingly broad, every dramatic turn telegraphed conspicuously, and by the time the drama is wrapped up with a bow and every child has learned a valuable life lesson, even the gap-toothed little tyke there solely for comic relief has begun to grate.
For a film about blissfully ignorant individuals facing up to hard truths, War of the Buttons seems remarkably uninterested in the reality on which it’s based, preferring instead to fabricate a more digestible fantasyland of universal nobility and anachronistically progressive leftism. Every remotely sensible character in the story’s French village, it seems, is either an arms-carrying resistance fighter on the verge of a populist uprising or a humble well-wisher ready to stand up to bullying SS officers at a moment’s notice. In one particularly galling scene, a world-weary but preeminently good-natured schoolteacher aggressively contradicts a colleague’s praise of the party line in front of a congregation of students, dismissing talk of the “superior” Aryan race as closed-minded and appalling. The idea that any figure of authority could openly speak out against Nazi dictates in the middle of an occupied country in 1944 without any consequence of reprimand is the worst kind of whitewashed historical mea culpa; it implies that those who observed party policy out of fear of reprisal, or even those who’d been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they followed the letter of the law without compunction, were somehow less respectable, morally, than those imaginary heroes who fought back at every turn. Glorifying some fantasy of the French everyman, the bleeding-heart rebel of unwavering integrity, is a convenient lie that erases the profound moral struggles undertaken by anybody who’s lived under an oppressive regime or controlling occupation.
But, of course, it’s infinitely easier to like good-natured characters if they speak out in their time against what we now universally accept as unforgivable injustices, even if having them do so strains real-world credibility. It’s a surefire shortcut to ingratiating an audience into the world of a story (things generally run more smoothly without complicated feelings and moral ambiguity), and it’s perfectly indicative of the film’s commitment to engaging with the truth of the war and of the world. The most it can muster in the way of real-world friction is an entirely undramatic attempt to have its heroes hide a young Jewish girl from the two hapless Nazi officers struggling to sniff her out, at which point, despite all tension being dissipated entirely, dozens of ordinary citizens hear the call to arms and defiantly rush the Nazis out of town. And so the children of the town, wrapped up in their adolescent rivalries and harmless war games, learn to see the truth about real, adult war: everybody instantly defends the weak, bad people are thwarted with minimal effort, and, as a final title card helpfully explains, the war ended and France went back to normal only a few months later. It’s a bit like Life Is Beautiful if Roberto Benigni’s character had survived and his son had really won a tank. What this cop-out of an ending proves is that transplanting a classic story into a war-torn setting was nothing more than a facile change of scenery, a hackneyed attempt to add gravity to a narrative that never really needed it.