Most American audiences are unlikely to be aware of the controversy that surrounded War of the Buttons in its native France over a year ago, namely that it was released only one week after another movie adapted from the same source. That would be Louis Pergaud’s 1912 novel Les Guerre des Boutons; it was first adapted for French movie audiences in 1962, and again in 1994, this time as in an English-speaking production that shifted the setting to Ireland. In September of 2011, two French remakes were released, one more comedic, the other more melodramatic. The former film was produced by Marc du Pontavice, known for animated and independent projects, while the latter was produced by Thomas Langmann, known for bigger budgeted films and his brazen personality. It was a personal battle between the two men. Reportedly, Langmann pushed the cast and crew of his film to work faster, resulting in an atmosphere that was stressed and cold.
I honestly don’t know which of the two remakes fared better at the box offices of France. All I do know is that Langmann’s production and not du Pontavice’s was chosen to receive an American release. Then again, it’s certainly possible that the other version of Buttons will make its way to our shores in the future. We here in the United States aren’t unaccustomed to movies with similar or even identical stories being released so close together. 2005 saw the release of Capote, which starred Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the title subject, and then in 2006 came Infamous, in which Toby Jones took the reins from Hoffman. This year, we will see two films in which the subject is director Alfred Hitchcock. One is the theatrical release Hitchcock, which will star Anthony Hopkins. The other is the HBO TV movie The Girl, and once again, Toby Jones will take the reins and give his take on the main character.
But I’m droning on about remakes and release dates when I should be focusing on the film I’ve just seen. War of the Buttons is a sincere but sometimes awkward film, one that mixes the eccentricities of a satire with the stylistic and thematic sensibilities of a Steven Spielberg film. The latter are so apparent that I couldn’t help but wonder if Spielberg himself secretly aided in production. Consider the plot, in which the horrific realities of war are intercut with an innocent, optimistic teenage love story, made possible only because of very implausible acts of bravery and kindness on the part of the other characters. Of particular interest to me was the score by Philippe Rombi, which was sweeping, highly melodic, and never stingy with the woodwind glissandi. Anyone who has listened to a John Williams score should be able to pick up on this.
Unlike the original novel, which took place in the late nineteenth century, the film is set during the Nazi occupation of France in a small village. In this climate of political unrest, we watch the unfolding of a turf war between rival children’s gangs, in which buttons are collected as trophies. The leader of the hero gang, a teenage boy named Lebrac (Jean Texier), is a class clown who will not read a book unless it contains military tactics he can apply to his everyday life. He has some very naïve ideas about how men – or, more accurately, soldiers – should behave, perhaps because of his strained relationship with his overly stern father. His ideas about women are even more naïve, as evidenced by his blossoming adolescent romance with a young girl named Violette (Ilona Bachelier), a new member of the community who is in fact a Jewish girl on the run from the Nazis after being separated from her parents.
Of the adult characters, the most significant are Lebrac’s teacher, known only as L’Instituteur (Guillaume Canet), and his old flame, Simone (Laetitia Casta), who’s posing as Violette’s godmother. Not too much about L’Instituteur can be said without giving away a crucial plot point; let it suffice to say that he openly opposes the Nazi regime. He, along with Lebrac and his sworn enemy, a teenage boy named L’Aztec (Thomas Goldberg), are key players in a climactic escape sequence, one that may be satisfying on an emotional level but on all other levels isn’t even remotely plausible. I suppose this is itself no reason to fault the film, although one wonders if, given the devastating realities of World War II, those involved should have tried for something a little more down to earth.
I don’t claim to know or understand all American attitudes towards foreign films. But I know what my own sensibilities are, and on that basis, I wonder whether or not certain scenes in War of the Buttons will be accepted by American audiences. Consider one where an adorable tagalong named Petit Gibus (Clement Godefroy), who cannot be more than five or six years old, wanders into the home of L’Aztec’s father (Gerard Jugnot); an alcoholic who’s clearly in the depths of a PTSD delirium, he mistakes Petit Gibus for the ghost of a dwarf he knew in the previous war, and celebrates his return by sharing shots of some kind of hard liquor. This is obviously played for laughs, and yet there’s nothing innately funny to me about a young boy getting so drunk that he hobbles down the street hiccupping. I also have to question Lebrac and his gang fighting L’Aztec’s posse wearing only their underwear, Lebrac having learned that Ancient Greek warriors were known to battle in the nude.