Film Review: War of the ButtonsWorld War II-set tale of children from neighboring towns who battle each other has some cute moments, but unsuccessfully walks the line between a light coming-of-age story and serious subject matter.
Children from rival towns stage a war against each other in Nazi-occupied France in War of the Buttons. The bucolic setting reveals little sign of wartime hardship or the kind of unease and mistrust that must have occurred when citizens were called upon to support the puppet Vichy government. That’s just one of the reasons why War of the Buttons is so confusing. The source material, a 1912 novel by Louis Pergaud, does not use a war as a backdrop, and the movie struggles to accommodate this addition.
Moving back and forth between the play wars of children and the real stakes of wartime is too difficult for writer-director Christophe Barratier (The Chorus) to pull off tonally. Despite light touches, like a saccharin score from Philippe Rombi, the specter of Nazis and childhood accidents on the horizon give the movie an unwelcomingly strong sense of foreboding.
It’s been a century since Pergaud’s novel, and I sincerely hope no children play like the ones in War of the Buttons anymore. There is a reason for the saying “sticks and stones will break your bones,” so it’s rather surprising that all the slingshot-fired rocks and wooden swords and sticks didn’t result in at least one trip to the village doctor. To fight their war, these boys also think nothing of holding pocketknives up to each other’s throats and setting fire to a fort filled with young boys—with flaming arrows, no less. It’s never clear if these boys know the limits to their fight. Is there some line they will not cross, or is it a game of chicken that won’t end until disaster strikes?
Just before the beginning of the boys’ feud (which was over rabbit-hunting rights and some name-calling, for the record), a girl with dark brown, curly hair arrives in town. It’s immediately clear she is a Jewish girl in hiding. She and the leader of the boys, Lebrac (Jean Texier), fall into a childish romance, and she readily divulges her secret to him. The movie is full of this kind of optimism and trust on part of the characters, but it’s the kind that makes the audience uneasy. Everyone in the town seems aware that she may be Jewish, but chooses not to investigate further. It’s the boys’ schoolteacher (Guillaume Canet) who goes out of his way to protect her, and not only because he has a crush on the woman (Laetitia Casta) who is claiming she is housing her “goddaughter.” When the stakes are finally raised, however, it seems unlikely that anything really bad could happen to anyone. In the safety of the town, the occupiers barely seem like a threat—could the girl really be carted off by the Nazis?
The “buttons” in the war refers to the humiliation subjected to the children’s prisoners. All the buttons fastening their clothes are cut off, leading them to waddle home to a beating by their parents. This is almost playful, but half the time the snipping is executed as if it’s the prelude to something far worse. Petit Gibus (Clément Godefroy), the runt of the group, gets all the best one-liners, and he offers a glimpse of what the movie could have been if it weren’t bogged down by heavy topics. Much of the film plays like a sweet coming-of-age story, leading to some unsettling tonal incongruities. The serious and light mixed much better in 1986’s kid classic Stand by Me, for example, mainly because the characters themselves found the serious serious and the funny funny. Here, brutality passes as funny and joking often leads to unwarranted brutality.
The French have a thing for the countryside, viewing it through a soft filter of patriotic reverence. The storytelling here hews to this shared vision of an idealistic, nostalgic world. Morality is black-and-white. Of course someone turns out to be the dastardly bad guy, and of course there is a potato farmer who is secretly part of the Resistance. It’s enough to make you wish for its counterpoint, Michael Haneke’s depiction of cruel German children in The White Ribbon. There, evil is a presence, a suspicion. Here, it’s wrapped up in a nice bow—and it shouldn’t be. Millions of copies of Pergaud’s book are in circulation, so the French-language audience may be happy just to see the adaptation of a beloved work. American viewers will find it difficult to reconcile this movie’s nostalgic, peripheral version of World War II with the documented brutality of the war.