'Love at First Fight' (unrated)

When it comes to combat readiness, Katniss Everdeen has nothing on Madeleine Beaulieu (Adèle Haenel), a feisty, defensive young woman who elbows and kicks her way through the French comedy Love at First Fight. For its first two-thirds, the film, written and directed by Thomas Cailley, seems to be groundbreaking. Then it slides into comforting familiarity.

Grimly (and comically) obsessed with surviving the apocalypse that she believes is inevitable, Madeleine has turned her life into an endurance test of deprivation and physical punishment. In one scene, she pops a raw sardine into a blender and bravely gulps it down. She learns how to open beer bottles with her teeth and dives into a pool with roof tiles stuffed in her backpack.

For her sly, deadpan performance, Ms. Haenel won a César award (the French Oscar) this year for best actress, beating out Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard. From the moment Madeleine appears, unsmiling and exuding sullenness and hostility, you sense Ms. Haenel as a bracingly fresh screen presence. Just beneath that hard-shell attitude is the pouty stubbornness of an obstinate child who might burst into tears if that shell were cracked.

Hardened, self-sufficient female characters are not uncommon in action-adventure and sci-fi films nowadays, but they are less frequently found in screwball comedies. Madeleine is the first character I can recall in a film not totally focused on zombies who believes the end of the world is at hand and without guidance has begun taking extreme measures.

Madeleine looks at men with suspicious, sidelong glances. She can’t be sweet-talked. Although she eventually melts, she never completely loses her fierce determination. That’s why it’s a disappointment when she softens, and a man comes to her rescue.

Her savior, Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), is a handsome young carpenter who, having inherited his father’s precarious woodworking business, is building a pool hut for Madeleine’s parents. He first meets her at an impromptu wrestling demonstration in which they’re paired. When Madeleine throws him down, he frees himself by biting her. Their little war is on.

Love at First Fight has a subtext that touches on social as well as sexual politics. In its early scenes, the movie portrays the ennui of an economically stagnant culture in which the outlook for the country’s aimless, unemployed youth is cloudy. As a friend of Arnaud’s puts it: “France is dead. There’s no future here.”

Of course, there is always the military.

Cast: Adèle Haenel, Kévin Azaïs, Antoine Laurent, Brigitte Roüan.
Director: Thomas Cailley.
Screenwriters: Thomas Cailley, Claude Le Pape.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 98 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Sexual content, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Cosford; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.

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