Adèle Haenel and Kévin Azaïs in 'Love at First Fight.'
André Téchiné’s new film In the Name of My Daughter doesn’t have expressly gay content like most of his others (unless you groove to lead actor Guillaume Canet’s beady-eyed studliness). Still, Téchiné’s influence as a gay director of profoundly humane insight has changed the game for other European film artists. Téchiné’s influence can be felt in the surprising, fresh sex role perceptions in Love at First Fight by Thomas Cailley.
It stars Adèle Haenel, whose In the Name of My Daughter role included an unforgettable dance where she literally shakes off her character’s high-cultured bourgeois upbringing, twerking to attain primitive sexual expression. Now, in Love at First Fight (a Cesar Award-winning performance as Best Actress), Hanael plays Madeleine, who wears a game face as she rejects ladylike middle-class life. Her full-cheeked, wide-eyed toughness is radiant like Téchiné’s lesbian characters (Catherine Deneuve and Laurence Côte in Thieves (Les Voleurs), Carole Bouquet in Unforgivables). Director-writer Cailley embraces her difference like an ace Techine pupil.
But check out Cailley’s boy imagery — an array of soldiers and small town guys including Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), a contractor infatuated with Madeleine, and his even sexier brother Manu (Antoine Laurent). They all could pose for one of those soccer team soft-core calendars. The physique silhouettes as Arnaud and friends, in shorts, swagger across a beach toward the sea at dawn is pure, scintillating Téchiné — a varied scale of boyish and manly attributes. Guess where Madeleine fits in when she and Arnuad meet-cute as wrestling opponents at a local army recruitment fair?
The title Love at First Fight announces a new take on what used to be called “the war between the sexes.” Cailley follows Téchiné’s lessons in masterpieces like Wild Reeds, I Don’t Kiss, Thieves, Unforgivables, and The Witnesses where he established the “equal but different” male-female balance. The characters’ alienation and commiseration enriched their relations, making it possible for gays and straights to coexist in an uncontrived storyline — a Téchiné breakthrough.
Téchiné’s artistry has transitioned cinema, creating a new androgynous understanding, continued by the late Patrice Chereau in Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train (1999) and now Love at First Fight’s contemporary vision. In this sexually updated version of the military service comedy, the army’s standard is no longer simply “masculine.” It makes tough girls as sexy as tough boys — and without the confusion of that Michelle Rodriquez indie Girlfight (2000) or the clueless praise for Charlize Theron’s sexlessness in Mad Max Fury Road as “feminist.”
Hanael’s Madeleine is a 21st century Private Benjamin without a Hollywood cop-out; she’s brusque but unmistakably girly while Azaïs’s Arnaud has a bowlegged strut that is cowboy-sexy in or out of uniform. When soldiers teach them about “double visualization” the analogy is to Madeleine and Arnaud’s contrast: She’s rough, he’s sensitive. Yet he’s dazzled by her singularity, her end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it intelligence, and it’s dazzlement, not pessimism, that leads to love — a new cross-gender, all-human understanding.
As young folks in a stagnating country and a culture threatened by natural and political crises (ISIS is breathing down the necks of these Euro youths), they have to find ways to appreciate their differences — as when, during bootcamp training, Arnaud gently applies camouflage make-up on Madeleine (“to make everything disappear”). Later, after half-cleaning his make-up, Arnaud resembles David Bowie’s Dancing with Blue Jean phase. His high-cheekboned glamour sure is an anti-ISIS recruiting poster.
Love at First Fight does not sentimentalize identity politics (Madeleine’s angry self-righteousness is exposed by the military’s equality) but Cailley revels in gender complications and contradictions, emphasizing humanity. We’ve gotten accustomed to watching movies — Hollywood films, European art films, even gay films — that pander to gender clichés and genre expectations. Thanks to Téchiné and Cailley’s insight (and to Strand Releasing still courageously expanding its repertoire) the old battle-of-the-sexes has transitioned.
Love at First Fight is currently playing in theaters. Watch the trailer below: