Title: WAR OF THE BUTTONS (La nouvelle guerre des boutons)
The Weinstein Company
Director: Christophe Barratier
Screenwriter: Christophe Barratier, Stephane Keller, Thomas Langmann, Philippe Lopes Curval, from Louis Pergaud’s novel
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Laetitia Casta, Jean Texier, Ilona Bachelier
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 10/8/12
Opens: October 12, 2012
When I was a kid during World War II we used to play a game called “Gestapo.” The complex rules were as follows: one six-year-old would take the title role while another of the same age would be his prisoner. The Gestapo would say, “Where were you when police headquarters got bombed?” The prisoner retorted: “I was at home listening to the radio.” Gestapo: “You lie, you lie!” (pretending to slap the prisoner across the face). At that age we didn’t know what we were talking about, had little idea of the seriousness of the German secret police, but thank goodness we had the Atlantic Ocean as our moat and the war, despite the occasional blackouts called in New York, did not affect us.
The kids in Christophe Barratier’s “War of the Buttons,” one of two French pictures with the same English name adapted from the same novel but this bearing the French title meaning “The New War of the Buttons,” play a game, but there were differences from ours. Instead of simply a “Gestapo” and his “prisoner,” whole bands of pre-teens would do battle with one another, simulating the war that was actually going on at the time, the mockery not too much more serious than their use of buttons as war trophies. Armed with wooden swords and sticks and scissors, about two dozen of these energetic small fry, an equal number from each of two adjoining villages, would pretend that their sovereign land was being invaded. When they clash, swords and sticks flying about, one group would admit defeat at least for that day and run away. But when a “hostage” got captured, the merry band would cut off his buttons. By the end of the warfare, the team with the most buttons would win, but in truth the war never does end, as peace would be far too boring for these hormone-addled youngsters whose greatest humiliation was to be called “limp dick.”
What’s surprising is how one team would be so orderly and quiet in class under the leadership or pre-teen Lebrac (Jean Texier). Under the direction of the mild-mannered teacher (Guillaume Canet), a man who turns out to be more than the youngsters think he is, the kids would sit in a one-room schoolhouse, boys of different ages all imbibing the same lessons. When Lebrac, the class dunce, cannot answer a question, he dutifully stands in the corner, yet in his home, he would talk back regularly to his boorish dad (Kad Merad), a man who like the teacher is more than the son thinks he is.
To Philippe Rombi’s often sentimental music, the film shows us how the war impacts various people in the town, most vividly when a pretty city girl, Violette (Ilona Bachelier) arrives to the school, assertive in her courtship with Leblac despite the girl’s alleged preferences for intellectuals. Protected by Simone (Laetitia Casta), a tailor in the role of the girl’s godmother, Violette ultimately must depend on the good will of all the boys on both sides of the village to prevent the French collaborating militia from hauling her off.
Here is yet another film that chastises the French, or at least a sizable enough proportion of those in authority, for collaborating with the occupying Nazis to such an extent that we wonder how the Holocaust could not have happened to the extent that it did without the traitors not only from the Gallic sector but from various parts of occupied Europe. (Aside: kudos to the Muslim and Christian Albanians who under the occupation did not turn over a single Jew, even giving their fellow citizens Muslim names and turning them into shepherds. What’s more they issued 2,000 false passports including one to Albert Einstein, not a single Albanian giving in to demands of the Germans to betray their fellows.)
“War of the Buttons,” situated in an idyllic French village (one that I might like to tour for a few hours but would go as nuts there as city-girl Violette herself), is splendidly choreographed by Christophe Barratier, who stages battles with mere children as though he were assisting Akira Kurosawa. This could not be an easy job given the ages of the small fry. The script even simulates treason as the mayor’s son (Louis Dussol) turns over to the enemy the location of a wooden camp that Leblac’s followers have built, torching the shack to the dismay of the occupants. The countryside looks inviting under Jean Poisson’s expert lensing, the action smoothly edited by Yves Deschamps and Anne-Sophie Bion.
Rated PG-13. 99 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+