Film festival fodder from the likes of Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, or Leos Carax may be highly regarded among critics, but, as if existing in a parallel universe, another group of French filmmakers have filled up the box office coffers back home and are more likely to be found in a U. S. multiplex or art house: the continental-crossing commercial flair of, say, Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), Frances Weber (The Valet), and Christophe Barratier (The Chorus). They have found an audience here, albeit not a huge one. Now Barratier raises the profile of French films with another honey-toned and homey film.
Since Steven Spielberg has moved on to tougher, more adult material, this may be your best chance to see his familiar sentimentality: picture-perfect cinematography; a swooning score by John Williams’s European doppelganger, Philip Rombi; and an old-fashioned (classical, if you prefer) sense of storytelling—all wrapped tightly into 90 minutes. In France, this story’s a known property, loosely based on a 1912 novel. Not only has there been a previous version in the past (from Yves Robert in 1962), but a competing adaptation by Yann Samuell also came out last year. The two competing versions were released in France one week apart.
The film’s trailer doesn’t lie. What you see is what you’ll get. March, 1944, in Vichy France: a scrappy group of boys defend their town’s honor from the poaching ruffians of a nearby village, but the turf tiffs turn into scrimmages. The boys from the defending hamlet humiliate their enemy by plucking off the buttons from the shirts and pants of the defeated, forcing the losers to run back home with their pants around their ankles. Teenager Lebrac (Jean Texier ) leads his mates on their surprise attacks. At one point, he and his comrades creep up and surround their enemy—about a dozen boys fishing by a lake—then charge at them, shoving their rivals into the water. With the exception of the French subtitles, the rustic scene could have sprung out of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.
Despite the dark clouds of war hovering in the far distance, the film’s outlook is insistently sunny. This is France of the Resistance, a time of unified nationalist spirit. Au revoir, les enfants, Louis Malle’s autobiographical tragedy, this is not. For a film with a more rounded historical take, the Kristen Scott Thomas vehicle Sarah’s Key (also released by the Weinstein Company) remembers a darker side of French wartime history, where resisters were rare and French collaborators were ubiquitous. In Buttons, it takes a cozy village to protect a teenage Jewish girl.
A warning for those who can’t watch The Sound of Music all the way through: the adorable factor hits the roof; it’s hard to accept the childish skirmishes as a metaphor for the larger world war because the kids are so adorable. At one point, they model themselves after ancient Greek warriors, running around protected by helmets and shields made from kitchen pots and pans. One young tike is Lil’ Gibus, a button-eyed, beret-wearing blond pixie, the smallest but pluckiest kid in the gang. His wide-eyed reactions and chirpy one-liners are in line with the rest of the film, where the camera never lets a wink, snarl, or grimace go by unnoticed.