The latest incarnation of “War of the Buttons” is likely to find favor with Jewish audiences, even though its execution fails to live up to its ambitions.
A placard at the beginning suggests the film was “inspired” by real events, but it actually is based on Louis Pergaud’s classic 1912 anti-military novel, “La Guerre des boutons.” Over the years, the book has been made into five films, including one set in Ireland and another, in 1957 France.
The latest version, by director Yann Samuell, is set in 1944 Occupied France, where the children of two small villages, Longeverne and Velran, are involved in a feud that began when one infringed on the other’s territory to capture rabbits. By contemporary standards, their battles are harmless, employing words (calling someone a “limp penis” was apparently enough to get things going), wooden swords and slingshots. Captured boys have the buttons removed from their clothing before being sent on their way.
For the most part, the rural area has escaped the attention of the Nazis, though local ruffians dressed in clown-like outfits have taken over policing duties on their behalf. Tension arises when a new girl, Violette (Ilona Bachelier), comes to town. Ostensibly, she is from Brittany, and staying with her godmother, the haberdasher Simone (Laetitia Casta), for health reasons.
But it is obvious to everyone except the townspeople that “Violette” — her real name is Myriam — is Jewish and has come here for her safety.
Violette meets Lebrac (Jean Texier) in the local school where Paul, the teacher (Guilaume Canet), preaches tolerance and understanding.
In an effort to complicate an otherwise black-and-white story, the film creates tension between Lebrac and his father (Kad Merad) and between Simone and Paul, because the men are thought to be cowards for not fighting the Nazis. Of course, both are secretly in the Resistance. In fact, it seems pretty much everyone in both towns are members of the resistance. When the Nazi-sympathetic cops come to investigate Violette, both communities unite to get the girl and Simone to safety.
“War of the Buttons” works as simple, inspirational entertainment, in the vein of “Rudy,” or “Stand and Deliver.” The child actors are remarkable, especially a youngster known as Little Hat (Clement Godefroy), who provides both humorous relief and poignancy when he reads a letter from his father, a POW in Germany.
There are nice moments in the budding friendship and mini-romance between Lebrac and Violette and the blossoming love between Simone and Paul. And of course it is difficult not to be moved when the townspeople unite against tyranny. Certainly, movie goers who enjoy inspirational films — and I admit to being one — will walk out of the theater happy.
But people who prefer films of substance — and I’m one of those, too — will also be a little disappointed, as well.
Watch the trailer for ‘War of the Buttons’: