In Love at First Fight, Adèle Haenel Burns Again Through Our Screens

Antagonism, aggression and the apocalypse prove to be the most potent stimulants in Thomas Cailley's winning first feature, Love at First Fight. (The movie's original, straightforward French title, Les Combattants—”The Fighters”—avoids the dopey pun that saddles the U.S. renaming.) Rejuvenating the romantic comedy through its unusual premise—in which training for an elite army unit releases a flood of pheromones—Cailley's film is also buoyed by its enormously appealing leads, Kévin Azaïs and Adèle Haenel, the latter of whom is having a welcome moment of semi-ubiquity in movie theaters this year.

Set during summer in a coastal town in southwestern France, its landscapes and light beautifully captured by cinematographer David Cailley, the director's brother, Love at First Fight opens with a sharp bit of morbid humor: Arnaud (Azaïs) and his older brother, Manu (Antoine Laurent), both woodworkers and carpenters, are horrified by the shoddy quality of the coffins available for their father's burial. “Even the oak is Class D,” Manu, the alpha to his sibling's beta, snarls at the funeral director. As these early scenes suggest, the script of Love at First Fight, which Cailley wrote with Claude Le Pape, is filled with odd details—whether about métier, doomsday theorizing or military training—that give it a specificity all too rare in a genre often filled with gossamer generalizations. (Tart political jabs, of varying degrees of subtlety, regarding national insecurity are also sprinkled throughout the film, as when the French tricolor comes toppling down after a petulant kick.)

With his future plans not extending much past carrying on the family business with Manu and spending his off-hours with his aimless pals, the mild-mannered Arnaud is jolted out of his routine existence when he encounters Madeleine (Haenel), an affectless, annihilation-obsessed graduate-school dropout training for that elite army unit, at a self-defense demonstration on the beach. She easily proves her physical superiority; the vanquished Arnaud, who resorts to biting his opponent, is simultaneously embarrassed and turned on. A job building a poolside shed for Madeleine's parents reunites the shy tradesman with the young woman, who dropped out of her academic program in economic modeling to prepare for “our extinction.”

Arnaud becomes so intrigued by the grimly determined, anhedonic Madeleine—her afternoon snack consists of a whole sardine puréed into a blood-entrails-and-scales smoothie—that he enrolls at the last minute in the same intensive two-week boot camp that she had signed up for months ago. The two will eventually break away from their regiment, embarking on an improvised survival course in which Arnaud's affections are returned—and Madeleine's direst predictions come to pass.

As this mismatched couple, still in army fatigues, frolic in a sylvan hideout, the chemistry between Azaïs and Haenel, while undeniably strong, occasionally confounds: Is it raw lust that draws their characters together, or a sibling-like camaraderie (and its attendant antipathy)? Or both? That the impulses behind this ricocheting energy are often ambiguous gives the duo even more erotic mystery. So, too, do their physical resemblances and dissimilarities, their bodies and faces so distinct from the underfed figures and generic good looks of the twentysomethings who populate American films. Both performers have penetrating, light-colored eyes (hers are green, his blue), though Azaïs's peepers seem to absorb information, while Haenel's gaze is directed outward, piercing with laser focus. With his close-cropped ginger hair, alabaster complexion and delicately chiseled face, Azaïs emits a vulnerability that contrasts with Haenel's toned, solid physique.

Love at First Fight, as it happens, is the second of two vehicles starring the prodigiously talented Haenel to be released this month, following André Téchiné's true-crime saga In the Name of My Daughter, which opened last week. Playing Agnès, the only child of Catherine Deneuve's casino-operating mother, the 26-year-old actress—whose career I've been following with keen interest ever since seeing her in Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies (2007)—gives a performance of such scalding intensity that I was instantly reminded of the ferocity of Isabelle Adjani in her greatest roles from the 1970s and '80s. (Coincidentally, Adjani's breakthrough was in a movie whose title could one day serve as that for any book about Haenel: François Truffaut's The Story of Adèle H. from 1975.) Just as Madeleine remains monomaniacally focused on building her body into a machine that can withstand global annihilation in Love at First Fight, Agnès in Téchiné's film also becomes fixated, this time on a shady family associate who treats her callously. The dynamic is nothing new, of course, but Haenel, again deploying that X-ray stare, transforms Agnès' gradual destabilization into a perverse display of strength. Though they don't have many scenes together, Deneuve and Haenel are fascinating to watch in the same frame, the long-reigning queen of French cinema clearly making space for one of its rising young talents.

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