France has made a considerable move to reclaim her literature, as not one but two French productions of Louis Pergaud’s 1912 novel, War of the Buttons, have been released this year. This brings the total number of filmed adaptations of the celebrated novel to five, with two original French versions (in 1937 and 1962), and the better known 1994 UK version from John Roberts previously standing as the definitive English speaking film version. However, thus far, the US will only be privy to one of the new additions, that directed by Christophe Barratier, the man whose directorial debut, 2004’s The Chorus was nominated for Best Foreign film in Americaland (the other, from Yann Samuell, whose 2003 debut, the much celebrated Love Me If You Dare top lines Guillaume Canet, used in Barratier’s ensemble here, but has yet to receive distribution in the US market). While there’s a slim possibility of seeing these parallel adaptations, it’s clear that we’ve been handed the generically packaged crowd pleaser, an over the top schmaltzfest using childhood squabbling as a microcosm for the Nazi occupation.
In the midst of WWII, the boys of a small French hamlet, Longeverne, are embroiled in a childish dispute with the boys of the neighboring village, Velrans, often engaging in semi-violent, semi-homoerotic clashes that results in the doltish but hotheaded leader of the Longeverne group, Lebrac (Jean Texier) concocting an idea to cut off the other boys’ buttons, symbolizing their spoils of war. Meanwhile, the two Nazi soldiers that occupy Longeverne carry off the lone Jewish family in mid daylight, while Simone (Laetitia Casta) suspiciously houses a dark haired “god-child,” appearing suddenly from out of the blue, named Violette (Ilona Bachelier). Simone, who has a past romantic history with the school teacher of the Longeverne children, (Guillaume Canet), turns to him for help in establishing fake papers for Violette. The young girl, who has begun a tempestuous relationship with Lebrac, endangers her well being by revealing she’s a Jew to her love interest, though this appears to be blatantly obvious to the rest of the townsfolk, including the mayor. While the sparring boychildren learn certain values and humiliates in their sparring, the ostracization of the mayor’s son causes Violette’s identity to be leaked, and the citizens of Longeverne must band together to protect each other.
Obviously, Pergaud’s original 1912 novel predates both World Wars, leaving our multiple film adaptations begging to be replaced by far more catastrophic backdrops. Here we have doltish Nazi caricatures dispatched with incredible ease, though not before we witness obligatory cruelty to Jewish women and children, downplayed to gruff orders and rough handling. Barratier employs two unforgivable grating elements in his version of War of the Buttons (the original French title translates as New War of the Buttons) that will raise the ire of any viewers unappreciative of patronizing, watered down depictions of life during wartime. One of these is Philippe Rombi’s extremely intrusive score, so overtly sentimental that cotton candy may as well rain down from the screen and coat the Nazi soldiers with pink stickiness, and worse, Barratier employs a superfluous child actor, Lil Gibus (Clement Godefroy), utilized solely to inspire cute oohs and awws at every wide eyed close-up and timely line of crackerjack puppy cuteness. Indeed, this is the type of flourish predicated on audiences just as easily amused at watching baby animals squeal and tumble about endlessly. Why shouldn’t we all love this simpering boo-boo child and revel in Barratier’s passive resistance of reality? Some of us have a harder time overlooking the fact that while these boys steal buttons, terrorizing the other boys in the woods, sporting their dazzling whitey tighties, little Jewish children were having buttons and other items taken away from them, too. We’re supposed to draw a parallel with the boys’ war of buttons and the war at large, but told with such hackneyed melodrama, this can’t help but seem not just trite, but also, painfully ridiculous.
It’s easy to take potshots at dumb and clueless Nazi soldiers, here written to be idiot school bullies now fully grown and lusting for a semblance of power. In reality, many of these soldiers had all the makings of intelligent human beings, with all their faculties and problem solving skills (to the casual observer) in order, which is what made the happenings during World War II Germany all the more inexplicably damaging and difficult to comprehend.
Barratier’s childish adaptation of this source material is egregiously offensive with its candy coated simplicity, much like the 1993 aberration, Swing Kids, all about rebellious German kids that defied the Nazi party because they wanted to listen to swing music from the US. Here, we’re informed that the proceedings are based on ‘tales of the resistance.’ Familiar French faces fill the screen, with the likes of Kad Merad, Marie Bunel and Gerard Jugnot (all previously employed by Barratier), as well as some verifiable stars like Canet (the real life partner of Marion Cotillard), who, like John Cassavetes, has begun to star in gigs that we can only hope he’s a part of to finance his own superior directorial efforts.
Like a bright flower in a poorly organized arrangement, the beautiful Laetitia Casta stands out on screen as she is able to exude a sort of natural vibrancy, but her talents are hardly utilized here. This “family adventure” is exactly the type of yarn made for adults too uncomfortable with revealing the truth of a cruel world to the little beings they’ve brought into it. Or, yes, for those adults that feel cinema should be an escapist mechanism with which one can regress to comprehending events through the eyes of a naive child and without the impending threat of real adult responsibility.