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War of the Buttons

La nouvelle guerre des boutons 2011 | 100 min | PG-13 | 2.39:1

War of the Buttons


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Movie appeal

Coming of ageUncertain

Theatrical release date

 12 October, 2012

Country of origin

 United States



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War of the Buttons


War of the Buttons Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, October 11, 2012

It makes sense to find producers continually working to bring Louis Pergaud’s 1912 novel, “The War of the Buttons,” to the big screen. Christophe Barratier’s French production is actually the fifth picture born from the original work, which spawned two features in 2011 alone. A tale of war that blends the innocence of youth with the realities of world conflict, “Buttons” is a seriocomic tale with ripe characterizations, opportunities for horseplay, and a piercing awareness of the evil that men do. Setting the story near the end of WWII, Barratier makes the viewing event obvious in theme and location, yet his classic Hollywood approach results in a satisfyingly glossy, endearingly acted movie.

The year is 1944, and as war rages across Europe, a tiny French village is struggling to get by, faced with poverty and the ongoing Nazi occupation. Young Lebrac (Jean Texier) is ruffian without an educational hope, frustrating Teacher (Guillaume Canet), who hopes to instill the complexity of warfare and literary enlightenment into his class. The leader of the local boys, Lebrac faces a unique challenge when troublemakers from a nearby community display their bullying ways, commencing a war between the towns that sends the children into a frenzy. Assembling an army poised to strike with sticks and pans, Lebrac takes the conflict seriously, studying the great generals and ancient tactics to help vanquish his enemies, taking their buttons as proof of victory. Also nearby is Violette (Ilona Bachelier), the goddaughter of dressmaker Simone (Laetitia Casta), whose mysterious arrival in the village has triggered outside interest from young SS officers on the hunt for local Jews.

Ditching the inherent grittiness of the story for a distinctly big screen experience, Barratier initially sets a romantic tone of innocence and wartime functionality, using a sweeping score by Philippe Rombi and golden cinematography by Jean Poisson to establish comfort with the oncoming conflict. It’s a broad take on troubling developments, diluting the core distress of the village as it faces implosion with bickering residents and outside Nazi hostilities, yet the technical credits are marvelous, setting an approachable tone to ease viewers into the concept of children at war. It’s a beautiful film to study at times, an experience amplified by an ensemble of juvenile actors blessed with wonderfully expressive faces, creating an “Our Gang” ambiance absent overly comedic overtones.

The war of “Buttons” is handled with a certain exaggeration, finding Lebrac questing to stymie any enemy attacks using combat techniques absorbed through books and lectures, finally taking to education after years of classroom disinterest. The battles are representative of their young participants, with a few beatings tossed into a mix of stick fights and forest ambushes, keeping the tension streaming through surprise attacks and Lebrac’s growing confidence as a leader. There’s also the symbol of the buttons, a spoil of war that’s peeled off enemies with the theatricality of a battlefield kill, hoarded by the boys as a display of their heroism. Lebrac even comes to wear the buttons as a makeshift display of rank, assuming general status as the conflict winds through victories, defeats, betrayals, and alliances -- a mirror of the WWII experience.

“Buttons” also offers a series of subplots to beef up the tale, finding a previous relationship between Teacher and Simone returning in emotional intensity after the seamstress’s return to the village, both characters unable to express their true feelings due to past offences and current global complications. Violette is also cause for concern, with her true identity threatened with exposure after Lebrac’s army makes a fool out of the mayor’s piggish son. Lebrac has his eyes on the troubled young girl as well, enlivened by her individuality and intelligence. At home, the boy finds a different kind of instability, disgusted with his father, who he assumes is skating through the war without contribution, rendering their relationship a struggle with secrets to explore throughout the story.

With some rough language and scenes of violence, “War of the Buttons” is ideal for older children, perhaps looking for an introduction to WWII atmosphere before hitting the harder stuff. It’s an accessible picture, broadly detailed and arranged, but remains an entertaining affair with a colorful selection of characters and interpersonal conflicts, sold with an irresistible production polish.

Starring: Jean Texier, Laetitia Casta, Guillaume Canet, Clément Godefroy, Théophile Baquet, Kad Merad
Director: Christophe Barratier

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