French writer Louis Pergaud's 1912 novel The War of the Buttons -- an allegory of combat featuring rival "armies" of button-pilfering children -- has been adapted for the screen twice before. A 1962 version set in rural France was followed by a 1994 adaptation set in Ireland. Although neither of those films took place during wartime, it was clear that their real message didn't have to do with buttons at all, but with the absurdity of our world's more grown-up battles.
(As in the book, the children in the movies cut the buttons off their enemies' clothing to humiliate them and to send them home with their pants around their ankles.)
As if to make sure everyone gets the point, the latest version, also French, is set during World War II in Nazi-occupied France, where two warring groups of children from adjacent towns externalize the simmering background conflict between neighbors, some of whom are collaborators with the Germans and some of whom are resisters.
To up the ante, this War of the Buttons also includes a Jewish child who is being sheltered from the Nazis.
It probably doesn't need these additions, but for the most part they work beautifully, adding poignancy and punch to a metaphor that's durable enough to withstand the extra weight. Most surprisingly, the mix of comedy, represented by the children, and drama, represented by the adults, feels unforced and in harmony with the film's expansive view of life.
As Lebrac, the teenage leader of one town's underage gang, Jean Texier delivers a nuanced performance. So does Ilona Bachelier as the new girl in town, Violette.
She's not the only one with something to hide. The question of who's a member of the resistance and who's a collaborator adds even more suspense to the increasingly complicated story, directed with confidence by Christophe Barratier from a script co-written by Thomas Langmann.
The tension starts thick and stays thick, between Lebrac and his disciplinarian father (Kad Merad); between the town's principled teacher (Guillaume Canet) and his mysterious, sultry ex (Laetitia Casta); and between the black-beret-wearing French militiaman Brochard (Gregory Gatignol) and pretty much everyone else. A popinjay who's only too happy to be doing the Nazis' dirty work, Brochard is a realistic villain, weak and afraid.
War of the Buttons is a story of honor, courage, betrayal and love. Those are big, abstract themes, to be sure. But they're not the exclusive province of the mature. These notions are given flesh by a cast of juvenile actors that includes, along with Texier and Bachelier, Thomas Goldberg as Lebrac's rival, L'Aztec; Clement Godefroy as Lebrac's youngest (and most adorable) warrior; and Louis Dussol as Bacaille, the son of the morally dubious mayor (Francois Morel). Bacaille is a boy whose allegiance will be tested as his injured pride precipitates a confrontation that leads to the film's crackling climax. Real wars have been waged with less provocation.
Moving without being melodramatic, War of the Buttons is a tale of the worst -- and the best -- that people of all ages are capable of.
In French with English subtitles.
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