Review of War of the Buttons

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Set in occupied France, Lebrac leads a play war between two rival kid gangs, but when his feelings for Violette, a Jewish girl in danger of being discovered by the Nazis, get stronger Lebrac realizes he must face the reality of what's happening around him.
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Movie Review: "War of the Buttons"

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2011
Directed by: Christophe Barratier
Genre: Family/Adventure

"War of the Buttons" is a 2011 French film based on the 1912 novel of the same name by French writer Louis Pergaud. At least three other feature film adaptations have also been made from this novel, including one in 1962 and the other in 1994. Another adaptation of "War of the Buttons" directed by Yann Samuell appeared in 2011, and both 2011 versions were released at virtually the same time in France.

Director Barratier is part of a group of new film directors in France that also includes Anne Fontaine and Frances Weber. They have enjoyed considerable commercial success in France and are attempting to duplicate that success in the United States. Barratier is best known for his 2004 drama "The Chorus," which earned over $92 million at the box office throughout the world.

"War of the Buttons" has not had a general theatrical release in the United States, so it is most likely to be seen by American viewers in art houses. The film doesn't boast a large audience, but its homey tone will increase the profile of French films in American cinema. Although "War of the Buttons" is generally a drama, the young age of the principal actors frequently gives it a comedic tone. The honeyed sentimentality of this film may remind the audience of Steven Spielberg's earlier works such as "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

"War of the Buttons" uses a classical method of storytelling that tightly wraps up this tale in 100 minutes. The cinematography is perfect and captures every facial expression of these young, mostly unknown actors. The sweeping musical score is composed by Philip Rombi, a film composer with the status of John Williams in Europe.

The story in "War of the Buttons" is a familiar one in France and almost has the status of a folktale. It is set in March 1944, when France was occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II. Jean Texier makes his film debut in the lead role of Lebrac, a teenage boy who leads a mock war between his gang of children and a rival gang from a neighboring village. Despite his young age, Texier shows a surprising maturity as an actor.

Lebrac's gang is defending the honor of the village from another gang that is encroaching upon their territory. The conflict begins as a series of tiffs but quickly escalates in a more serious scrimmage. Lebrac's gang resorts to removing the buttons from the clothing of the rival gang members, forcing them to return home in humiliation with their trousers around their ankles. Lebrac then leads his comrades on surprise attacks by sneaking up the other gang members. This strategy culminates in a scene where Lebrac's gang surrounds about one dozen boys from the rival gang while they are fishing and shoves them all into the water. This charming scene would be at home in a cover of the Saturday Evening Post drawn by Norman Rockwell.

The film shifts to a more serious theme when Lebrac starts to fall in love with Violette (Ilona Bachelier), a young Jewish girl who is new in the village. She is at risk of being discovered by the Nazis, which forces the children to set their game aside and confront the real war. Despite the setting of Vichy France during WWII, "War of the Buttons" maintains a consistently sunny tone that directly contrasts with darker outlooks on occupied France, such as Louis Malle's autobiography, "Au Revoir Les Enfants." Other works such as "Sarah's Key" provide a more historically accurate depiction of this period in France, when organized resistance against the Germans was rare.

The adorable children in "War of the Buttons" make this film most suitable for viewers who enjoyed "The Sound of Music" from beginning to end. Barratier clearly intends for the skirmishes of the children to be a metaphor for the real war, but this is difficult to take seriously because of the charming performances of the young actors. This is particularly true in a scene where the children use pots and pans as shields and helmets.

Young Gibus (Clement Godefroy) is especially memorable as the smallest and most plucky member of Lebrac's gang. His snappy one-liners and open-eyed reactions match well with the optimism of the film. His beret and pixie-style haircut emphasize his innocent expressions to the darker elements of the film.

Rating: 3 out of 5