'War of the Buttons': Bloodless, Benign
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
During one week last year, two film versions of Louis Pergaud's popular 1912 book "War of the Buttons" dueled for pride of place on French theater screens. Having hit the American critical and commercial jackpot with French imports like "The Artist" and "The Intouchables," movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was happy to snatch up the "Buttons" guaranteed by helmer Christophe Barratier to be an entirely "new" take on the familiar story (already filmed three times) about country kids playing at war.
"New" means setting "Buttons" back to 1944, when real carnage and genocide could cast enlightening dark shadows over child's play. Unfortunately, Barratier's reinterpretation errs on the side of heavy-handed, unpersuasive moral lessons. He slathers sunshine over every shadow; feel-good sentimentality defeats harsh reality at every turn. Cute-as-a-button French children, picturesque snapshots of the Auvergne's happy valleys, sappy Disney-sounding music, the reduction of evil to schoolyard bullying -- this "War of the Buttons" is glossy and bland, a French pastry for folks who prefer their parables sweet, with no bite.
Young Lebrac (Jean Texier) comes as close to being the star of "Buttons" as anyone. His attractiveness, hints of character and coming-of-age arc give us something to connect to, while one-dimensional grown-ups mostly stand around posing like dramatic signposts. A big, gawky kid, he's the class troublemaker: Seething with contempt for his farmer father (Kad Merad) -- who's not at the front -- Lebrac blows off steam by taking up arms against the Velrans, a gang led by an equally militant ruffian nicknamed the Aztec (Thomas Goldberg).
Outfitted with wooden swords and tin-pot armor, the boys mount serio-comic ambushes and massacres in lush green meadows and forests, capturing buttons as war trophies. Every Gallic physog among these half-pint warriors is idiosyncratically adorable, instantly forgettable. The camera frequently homes in on Petit Gibus (Clement Godefroy), a particularly endearing elf who mugs irresistibly while cracking super-cute. Tears are predictably jerked when the tyke haltingly reads a letter from his POW dad: "You're my ray of sunshine."
Except for Lebrac -- and Violette, the mysterious refugee from Paris (Ilona Bachelier) he comes to care for -- these children are little more than pretty (or funny) pictures, placeholders for innocence, the inevitable fall from grace and ultimate redemption. Appearing in static tableaux and longshot, they are mostly reduced to abstraction -- until it's time for one of their crew (Louis Dussol, soddenly despicable) to turn Judas, cranking up the film's machinery of anti-Semitism.
The movie's grown-ups are even worse. Each could be replaced by a cardboard cut-out wearing an identifying label: noble teacher (Guillaume Canet), craven mayor, potato farmer/resistance fighter, local juvenile delinquents turned Vichy policemen, glamorous Parisian dame (Laetitia Casta) sheltering a "godchild" without papers. Not an iota of flesh-and-blood humanity is generated by the actors. Their interactions are perfunctory and stilted, drained of emotional resonance. It's as though they were strangers auditioning for a History Channel miniseries they already know is a bomb.
Buried under the film's pretty Eden, populated largely by saintly country folk, lies historical ugliness. Is "Buttons" for very small children, content with storybook fables? If this movie's for adults, it's a censored fairy tale in which the French sheltered and protected Jews, remarkably unafraid of reprisal. We witness -- along with the schoolteacher and his class -- one Jewish family cruelly mishandled; apparently they don't inspire the kind of communal sympathy later extended to out-of-towner Violette. The village villains -- collaborationist cops -- are treated as hardly more than schoolyard misfits and bullies, their giant berets making them look like Mickey Mouse Nazis.
One image in particular epitomizes the film's careless, insensitive evocation of a monumentally dark and painful period of history: After Lebrac's gang claims victory and terms of surrender have been negotiated, Lebrac slams his wooden sword into the ground. The camera closes in to frame the sword's obvious resemblance to those wooden crosses that will soon crowd hills all over postwar Europe. One has to assume that Barratier's exploiting that visual echo -- but to what end? In cinematic syntax, he's simply linked similar shapes, without generating the power of logic or emotional charge. In this "Buttons," war, whether waged by kids or adults, is bloodless and benign.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.