Into this milieu comes Violette, a girl claimed as the godchild of Simone, a local beauty who’s recently returned from Paris. From square one, there’s no question that Violette is Jewish and, therefore, in danger. Factor in a courageous schoolteacher carrying a torch for Simone, a caricature of an S.S. officer, salt-of-the earth villagers, and the sweetest boys despite their conflicts—and the stage is set for a moral tale contrasting the high stakes of real war against child’s play.
French writer Louis Pergaud’s 1912 immensely popular novel serves as the inspiration for the current film, a story first adapted cinematically in 1962 and again in 1994. Times change though the appeal of the universal themes and humane values thankfully endure. Nevertheless, while “War of the Buttons’” heart is securely in the right place, this rendition feels manipulative, awkward, and phony.
First, the rival gangs seldom succumb to base instincts. When events do veer toward the serious, Barratier cuts to the smallest, irresistibly cute boy who overdoes every verbal and nonverbal reaction. It’s like having a Muppet on hand as a mascot delivering comic relief. If this doesn’t spoil the mood, Philippe Rombi’s saccharine music insistently and repeatedly telegraphs how we should feel, leaving little time to consider anything approaching complexity. On the positive side, beautiful countryside does beckon, and the actors deliver committed, professional work, notably director and actor Guillaume Canet as the schoolteacher, Laetitia Casta as Simone, Ilona Bachelier as Violette, and Jean Texier as LeBrac, leader of one of the primary gang.
An opening title to “War of the Buttons” announces: Inspired by true stories of the resistance. The enterprise is noble, but the approach undermines those admirable, courageous efforts with this simplistic interpretation. In French with English subtitles. At Landmark’s Tivoli Cinema for one week only, through November 8th.