Transplanted to 1944 Nazi-occupied France, Louis Pergaud’s 1912 Lord of the Flies-esque novel about a play war between the boys of two neighboring villages takes on metaphoric significance in this adaptation helmed by The Chorus’ Christophe Barratier. Classically styled with a sweeping score, dramatic crane shots and golden hues, War of the Buttons is adorable but sentimental, an earnest whitewash of a painful period during World War II.
Led by Lebrac (tough newcomer Jean Texier), the boys of one town in rural France declare war on the boys of the next town over. They meet every Thursday to fight with fists and sticks, and otherwise disinterested student Lebrac puts his education to work applying the battlefield tactics he learned from the Greeks during a museum field trip. When captured, prisoners of war are stripped of their buttons and sent on their way with open shirts and sagging pants. These trophies become medals of honor for the victors.
Like in the book, the violence escalates to dangerous levels, but the real action begins when the boys on both sides rally to protect Violette (Ilona Bachelier), the cute new girl who may be a Jew in hiding. In the cat-and-mouse game to save her, the children realize the adults in their lives—their schoolteacher (Guillaume Canet), the beautiful shopkeeper (Laetitia Casta) and Lebrac’s father (Kad Merad)—may not be as ineffectual as they seem. (That the underground resistance movement was so widespread and the Nazi-sympathizing Vichy officers so bumbling, one suspects, are bits of revisionist history.)
The boys are crazy cute—Clément Godefroy, particularly, as Petit Gibus, inadvertently getting drunk on plum liquor with the enemy and wearing a bucket as armor, is a joy. But the Canet-Casta romance is paint-by-numbers and the plot, though gorgeously photographed, is wishful thinking.
Director: Christophe Barratier
Writers: Stephané Keller, Christophe Barratier and Philippe Lopes Curval
Starring: Guillaume Canet, Laetitia Casta, Jean Texier, Clément Godefroy, Théophile Baquet, Louis Dussol, Harold Werner, Nathan Parent, Ilona Bachelier, Thomas Goldberg
Release Date: Oct. 12, 2012