Survival of the Fittest

in 67th Cannes Film Festival

by Richard Mowe

When first-time director Thomas Cailley came to this year’s Cannes Film Festival he had “zero expectations” for his debut feature Les Combattants, which was selected for the 46th Directors’ Fortnight.

By the time he was ready to leave at the end of the event he had garnered a record-breaking tally of no less than four awards — the Art Cinema Award, the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers SACD prize, the Europa Cinemas Label, and the Fipresci accolade for the best film in a parallel section.

Such omens bode well not just for the release of the film on its home territory in France on 20 August but also its profile around the world — and, naturally, the career of its maker who previously had only directed a solitary short.

The bouncy and physically robust romantic comedy, known as Love at First Fight in English, overturns conventions with the pairing of a mild-mannered young carpenter Arnaud (Kevin Azais) and the feisty and combative Madeleine (Adele Hanel from Water Lilies and Suzanne) who embark on training at a military style boot camp — an ultimate challenge for any relationship. It may be a love story of sorts, but Cailley’s witty script seems to be more interested in delivering a study of survival.

The Directors’ Fortnight jury praised it as “that rarity, a well scripted and well acted feelgood arthouse film with witty dialogue” while the Fipresci jury admired its “orginal vision” and the way it captured “the mood of a generation”.

On any view Cailley’s Cannes baptism, which attracted a consistent flurry of critical approval, represents an impressive reception.

Shot in the Landes area of south-western France where Cailley and his cinematographer brother David grew up the film took its director more than three years to make although the shoot itself was a crisp seven weeks.

“I had wanted to film there for some time because one of the aspects of the countryside is that it is very flat. There are vast vistas but no horizon because there is always something to cut it out. So it worked for these two characters, pushing themselves to the limit across this landscape. Because it is very sandy none of the trees can sand up straight so there is a special atmosphere”, says Cailley in a break from the media round at the Unifrance encampment in the old port.

He describes the character of Madeleine as “like a meteorite… when her world explodes, Arnaud chooses to leave his world for her world. Then they have to make a new third world.”

Cailley says the spark for the screenplay may have come from a misspent youth watching too many television reality shows. “There was somethig that intrigued me about the contestants who were at the same time both pathetic and courageous. The comic elements derived directly from the situations and the incredible energy of those involved.”

He says it helped that his short film Paris Shanghai has a similar survivalist theme, about an odd couple on an epic road trip.

“So the leap was not such a huge jump”, he says. “The experience of working on the short was positive while the reactions were good. I travelled with it to lots of Festival. The process of making a short is not that different from a feature: it’s just that obviously it goes on a lot longer, and you have to sustain the momentum.”

The crew, including his brother, came with him. “We’re all about the same age in our Twenties and they’re my generation. I had already been to Fémis, the film school in Paris and had produced some documentaries for television. My brother, on the other hand, was a university lecturer but decided to give it all up to become a cinematographer. I love the actual process of filming because it is such an intense and collective experience whereas writing is a much more solitary activity when you’re looking for things deep in yourself.”

Cailley found his two protagonists with relative ease. “Adele was very athletic and I had seen her in House of Tolerance and thought she had the right demeanour. I had chosen Kevin early in the casting process but for another role until I realised that I had the other principal character under my nose all the time. Although it was tightly scripted there was some room for them to bring things to the table such as the way Kevin looks at Adele, which you could not dream up on the printed page, but which was exactly what I wanted.”

Whether he can repeat the freshness and vigour of his first feature only time will tell. “It was not only my first film, but also a first for the producer, the editor, the co-writer and the cinematographer. It was a collective baptism, which gave it all a certain kind of energy. I hope that we can stay together for the next one, and there is no reason why that should not be possible.”

As he was growing up Cailley tended to watch television rather than go regularly to the cinema. “I wasn’t much of a cinéphile but I have come to admire the work of people like Céline Sciamma and Bruno Dumont. And the films of the late Maurice Pialat made a deep impression. I don’t see myself doing anything on French television because there is more liberty for the kinds of things I want to do in the cinema.”

Working in an environment where more than one third of all production in any given year is by first time directors Cailley admits that budding young French directors have an enviable system of support compared to their counterparts elsewhere. “Yes we do receive a lot of support — but you still have to seize the opportunity and make the most of it. I had no expectation when I came to Cannes so anything was going to be a bonus. Now the film comes out here on 20 August as everyone is starting to come back from holiday but before the big influx of releases in September. That is a hellish time with too many titles. Late August can be a good time to release a film and there have been many successful examples such as Guillaume Gallienne’s My Myself and Mum (Guillaume et les garçons à table) last year.”

Cailley hopes audiences will be fighting fit after their summer sojourns and will be ready and eager to take on the sparring rigours of Les Combattants. Survival is the name of the game..

Richard Mowe