Christophe Barratier, director of the sentimental hit The Chorus, returns with another tale of loveable Gallic ruffians and the stern-but-fond instructor guiding them in War Of The Buttons. For added shameless heartstring-tugging, the action takes place in occupied France, as a dimpled Jewish girl (Ilona Bachelier) arrives in the bucolic village of Longverne, where local shop owner Laetitia Casta hopes to keep her safe. War Of The Buttons opens with a card noting that it draws from true accounts of the era, but the film’s main source material is actually a 1912 novel that’s been brought to screen several times before: in 1962 by Yves Robert, in a 1994 version directed by John Roberts, and in a rival adaptation by Yann Samuell (Love Me If You Dare), which came out in France just a week before this one.
The story’s appeal is clear: It’s the adorable account of rival gangs of schoolboys who’ve been carrying out strategic warfare between Longverne and its neighboring town of Velrans. When an enemy is caught, the buttons are snipped off his clothes as a coup, leaving the kid to run home holding his pants up and expecting a scolding or worse from his parents. The dashing leader of the Longverne kids, played by Jean Texier, is a constant disappointment to the local schoolteacher (Guillaume Canet) until he starts taking an interest in classical battles, drawing from the strategy of the Greeks and Spartans.
Though this version transplants the tale to World War II, it doesn’t try for any nuanced commentary on the conflict. The collaborators are cowardly, ugly, or fat. The rest of the town is brave, noble, and working with the Resistance. And the children’s competition is simply used as a lesson in everyone being ready to work together for the greater good. Texier and Bachelier start up a baby courtship, the boys rush to battle wielding wooden swords, the music swells, and the film rapidly crosses the line between cute to cloying. The worst offender in this regard is the young Clément Godefroy, whose character is essentially a French take on a Little Rascal, sporting a bowl cut, bellowing catchphrases, and at one point wearing a bucket as armor in a fight. The use of a real war to give added emotional heft to this already potentially manipulative story make this film an act of callous calculation behind the beautiful shots of the French countryside.