21 August 2015 | StevePulaski
It's the end of the world as we know it (and no one says a thing)
Trying to balance his summer like many of us do, between working and spending time with friends, Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) seems largely fixated on this balance over anything romantic or more substantial during his vacation. A wrench in his plan comes in the form of Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), a beautiful and uncommonly athletic woman. Her toned muscles, gorgeous and structured physique, and complete and total self-confidence in herself and her ideas instantly makes her attractive to Arnaud. As he talks to her, whilst doing oddjobs around her home, he begins to realize that she is more original than she lets on; Madeleine is a survivalist, hellbent on being prepared for, what she believes, is an imminent apocalypse destined to wipe out planet Earth and life as we know it. Madeleine prides herself on being one step ahead of everyone around her, and, similar to the way she handles herself, she doesn't really care if you disapprove or can't keep up with her speed.
Arnaud, on the other hand, I feel, embodies a lot of us. He's not carefree, but simply minded in the present. He wants to work to get enough money to do the things he'd like with his friends and it's that simple motivation that gets him in and out of bed each morning. Madeleine's discussion about end times and doomsday prophecies is likely the first time he has ever even considered the possibility of life as he knows it changing in the blink of an eye. He decides to try and school himself by joining Madeleine at a reserve camp of sorts, which will prepare her for the army and her ship date, which is right around the corner. Here, Arnaud will push himself to physical and mental limits, proving to himself and the one he is rapidly falling in love with that he's capable of looking at a bigger picture and committing himself to something rather than letting the world pass by around him.
Thomas Cailley's "Love at First Fight" is rather impressive on a structural note, due to the fact that, as it carries itself, its genre does a full one-eighty. In the very beginning, the film plays like the opening of a Nicholas Sparks film, only a tad moodier, whereas, by the forty-five minute mark, and eventually when the remainder of the film is set at the reserve camp, it becomes a survivalist thriller of sorts. This duality comes off as ostensibly uneven and far-fetched for a film like this, but writer/director Cailley finds a way to make it work because he doesn't rush the development or pace of the film. He moves carefully, illustrating the way characters move and the manner in which they speak, making sure we get the nuances examined before we can even think about jumping ship to another genre.
It's a tricky tactic he handles with serious screen writing conviction, but it would've been nothing without solid performers, which is where Azaïs and Haenel come in. Both young talents exhibit serious acting jobs, though the standout is definitely Haenel. From the moment she steps on screen, you get the feeling that she's not your general idea of a romantic interest, and even by the end of the film, you're not convinced she was ever cut out to be anything other than her own independent woman. The fact that Cailley can etch her into a film like this and simultaneously give her and her character some respect, in addition to never cutting down Haenel's Madeleine's significance as a character is another serious win for the film at hand.
I suppose the sole thing about "Love at First Fight" that had me underwhelmed was its lack of real connection or bite. The film is remarkably tame, especially when you consider other French romances, which throw ideas of political commentary or, at the very least, social ideas into the mix. While I'm not saying it's Cailley's obligation to layer a film with any of those things, it would've made for a more connective experience. In addition, given the fact that there's a bit less dialog between Arnaud and Madeleine that would be called revealing, there's a heavy reliance on a minimalist tone here, which hurts the film's ability to make a viewer connect with the characters at hand.
Having said that, "Love at First Fight" does do some quiet subversion of a genre that has long disappointed, and fuels my point that if people want to see romance films with a bit more layeredness and themes, they'll need to seek out foreign films or the very, very independent films of American cinema, for mainstream American cinema, in this genre at least, is doing nobody any good.