War of the Buttons — Review

by Tom Mayer on October 12, 2012

War of the Buttons, the new French film based on the novel of the same name, written by a man killed in World War I. While the novel, and two previous film versions, were set in World War I, the new film updates the story to Vichy France during World War II. One group of boys, led by teenager Lebrac (Jean Textier) wages war against a neighboring village’s teenage leader “the Aztec”. The “war of the buttons” consists of the boys cutting off the suspenders and shirt buttons from the guys they capture from the other side, forcing the victims to walk home with their pants down.

Meanwhile, their teacher Paul (Guillaume Canet), also the town clerk, is helping others to hide Jews with local families for their safety. Simone (Laetitia Casta), the beautiful owner of a local dress shop, does her part by hiding Violette (Ilona Bachelier), a Jewish girl from Paris. Local goons show their loyalty to Vichy by spying on the locals to see who is disloyal, and who may be harboring Jews and leftists.

The film begins slowly, with beautiful cinematography of the countryside, and light comedy relief provided by some of the younger boys. However, the film is overloaded with plot: two groups of teenage boys battling; Paul’s conflict with Vichy authorities who accuse him of disloyalty (the fact that Paul’s father died heroically in World War I shuts up the Vichy goons); the long-ago affair between Simone and Paul; whether Violette will be discovered and sent to a concentration camp; and the slowly budding romance between Lebrac and Violette.

Ever since Marcel Ophuls and his 1971 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, the French — and French filmmakers — have tried to deal with Vichy and French collaboration. Apparently, the French are far enough away from World War II to create this candy-colored, dewy-eyed look at the Vichy era.
The multiple plot threads and lush cinematography threaten to turn Vichy and the Holocaust into a sideshow. But director Christophe Barratier manages, just barely, to hold the tone of the film together, before it becomes inappropriately comic.

Casta and Canet more than hold their own against a huge cast of newcomers, Canet being a well-known heartthrob in France, and Casta being a famous model starting her acting career.

War of the Buttons. PG-13. 100 minutes. Opens at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas on October 12.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment