Pras on World Films: LA GUERRE DES BOUTONS (“War Of The Buttons”)

In a highly unusual bout of filmmaking madness, two simultaneous adaptations of the French classic, War of the Buttons, were released in France within seven days of one another. The first version (La Guerre des boutons) was written and directed by Yann Samuell. The second version (La Nouvelle guerre des boutons) was directed by Christophe Barratier.  The Button race began last year when the rights to Louis Pergaud’s 1912 novel – on which Yves Robert’s popular and oft-quoted 1962 film was based – fell into the public domain.

VERSION 1:  The first version – written and directed by Yann Samuell (Love Me If You Dare) – offers a predictably polished melange of post-war nostalgia and crowd-pleasing comedy.War of the Buttons

Samuell sets the action in a small village in the south of France in 1960, against the distant backdrop of the Algerian War. A gang of boys, aged 7 to 14 led by the intrepid Lebrac (Vincent Bres) are at war with the kids of the neighbouring township, their sworn enemies.

In this uncompromising battle of honour and allegiances that’s been kept alive for generations, humiliation is the most fearsome defeat and no tactic is too extreme – even if it necessitates fighting as naked as a worm or accepting the help offered by Lanterne (Salome Lemire) – a girl! She’s the gang’s new recruit, a tomboy full of panache and ingenuity — and it seems victory could now just be a skipping stone’s throw away. But it’s not easy to wage war without getting caught by your parents…

A huge success at the French box office in late 2011 with over 1.5 million admissions, THE WAR OF THE BUTTONS is a cheeky family comedy about integration, independence and innocence, about conflicts big and small, and growing up — with a fresh and joyful spirit that speaks to the childish delight of disobedience. Here’s a film to make kids laugh, parents smile and grandparents melt with nostalgia.

Writer-director Samuell has done away with the more dismal and racier aspects of the original – a sequence of frolicking nude boys in the ’62 film has been watered down here to meet current standards – to focus instead on the plight of the story’s main character, Lebrac (Vincent Bres, excellent), a crafty and rebellious tween forced to support his household after his father dies. With a tough-loving mother (Mathilde Seigner) preferring he become a trade apprentice, and a thoughtful schoolteacher (Eric Elmosnino) urging him to continue his studies, Lebrac’s dilemma becomes the crux of the story, with the “war” part pushed more into the background. Prompted by one gang’s decision to cut the buttons off the shirt of a captive (thus the title), the battles slowly intensify as the fate of Lebrac – including his relationship with a feisty tomboy (Salome Lemire) – pans out.

Production companies: One World Films, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, TF1 Films Production, Les Films du Gorak
Cast: Eric Elmosnino, Mathilde Seigner, Fred Testot, Alain Chabat, Vincent Bres, Salome Lemire, Theo Bertrand, Tristan Vichard
Director: Yann Samuell
Screenwriter: Yann Samuell, based on the book by Louis Pergaud
Producers: Marc du Pontavice, Matthew Gledhill
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Pierre-Francois Limbosch
Music: Klaus Badelt
Costume designer: Charlotte David
Editor: Sylvie Landra

VERSION 2:  The second “reboot” of the original 1912 novel and 1962 film transplants the action to 1944 Vichy France.Buttons Film Still - H 2011

Barratier’s version is probably the more memorable one, adding a somewhat intriguing twist by setting its events during the final months of WWII.There’s a somber side to certain parts of the story. The tykes in question once again involve rebellious pre-teen LeBrac (Jean Tixier, spirited) and his fellow ruffians, who start a playful, rather harmless conflict with kids in the neighboring town. Although the clashes between the two gangs provide early comic relief, they are eventually overshadowed by the larger events of the war, which include the plight of a Jewish girl (Ilona Bachelier) in hiding who soon becomes LeBrac’s love interest, as well as that of a local schoolteacher (Guillaume Canet) forced to comply with Vichy policemen who wield their power all too heavily.

Production companies: La Petite Reine, TF1 Films Production, Studio 37, Mars Films, Longline Studios
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Laetitia Casta, Kad Merad, Gerard Jugnot, Jean Texier, Clement Godefroy, Theophile Baquet
Director: Christophe Barratier
Screenwriters: Christophe Barratier, Stephane Keller, Thomas Langmann, Philippe Lopes Curval
Based on the book by: Louis Pergaud
Producer: Thomas Langmann
Director of photography: Jean Poisson
Production designer: Francois Emmanuelli
Music: Philippe Rombi
Costume designer: Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz
Editor: Yves Deschamps, Anne-Sophie Bion

While in the Samuell film the various play fights are never much more than that, here they’re meant to illustrate the greater battle between partisans and resistance fighters that took place throughout France at the time.

Classically styled with a sweeping score, dramatic crane shots and golden hues, War of the Buttons is adorable but sentimental, an earnest whitewash of a painful period during World War II.

Led by Lebrac (tough newcomer Jean Texier), the boys of one town in rural France declare war on the boys of the next town over. They meet every Thursday to fight with fists and sticks, and otherwise disinterested student Lebrac puts his education to work applying the battlefield tactics he learned from the Greeks during a museum field trip. When captured, prisoners of war are stripped of their buttons and sent on their way with open shirts and sagging pants. These trophies become medals of honor for the victors.

Like in the book, the violence escalates to dangerous levels, but the real action begins when the boys on both sides rally to protect Violette (Ilona Bachelier), the cute new girl who may be a Jew in hiding. In the cat-and-mouse game to save her, the children realize the adults in their lives—their schoolteacher (Guillaume Canet), the beautiful shopkeeper (Laetitia Casta) and Lebrac’s father (Kad Merad)—may not be as ineffectual as they seem. (That the underground resistance movement was so widespread and the bumbling Nazi-sympathizing Vichy officers.

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