Despite its unappetizing, though literally accurate, title, Love at First Fight is a spry and quietly surprising romantic comedy that brings to mind the good-natured, slightly off-kilter deadpan of Bill Forsyth, specifically “Gregory’s Girl,” whose odd-couple romance and light tweaking of gender stereotypes this movie recalls.
In this case, the odd couple is Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), a brusque dozer of a girl, fond of pushing her body to its limits, and Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), an easy-going carpenter who literally falls for Madeleine (har har) when she pins him to the ground during a self-defense exercise. Arnaud grows increasingly infatuated with Madeleine while building a shed in her parents’ backyard, leading him to abandon the family carpentry business — recently taken over by his brother after their father’s death, a needless bit of easy poignancy —and enroll in the same high-intensity Army-sponsored boot camp Madeleine is in. While there, Madeleine finds herself disappointed at the softness and forced camaraderie of army life while Arnaud unexpectedly becomes something of a leader. Both eventually become dispirited with the whole endeavor, ditching the camp and staking out on a new life out in the woods, living off the land.
Played by Haenel with a wonderful steely-eyed single-mindedness, Madeleine slowly reveals herself to be a total weirdo, a doomsday prepper fascinated by bizarre survivalist rituals like jumping into the pool with a 50-pound pack on her back and eating a raw fish pureed in a blender. Arnaud, a more socially conventional type — he has buddies; they go to the club — nonetheless makes an engaging pair with Madeleine. After Arnaud saves a ferret from drowning, Madeleine gifts him a box of frozen dead chicks. They watch together as the freezer-encrusted chicks slowly thaw in the microwave. Now that’s romance!
In its best moments, such as the thawing chicks shot, first-time director Thomas Cailley (who also co-wrote the screenplay) achieves a tone of likable oddness that captures a bit of the ineffable charm of Forsyth’s films, but his style is inconsistent, a melange of artsy master shots, Coen Brothers-esque blackout gags, and handheld closeups that never gels into a coherent approach to the material. But Haenel and Azaïs are so winningly matched, Cailley almost gets away with it.
Unfortunately, as the film goes on, he renders Madeleine increasingly hapless, leading to a disappointing (and weirdly overblown) finale that toggles our lovers back into the traditional gender roles they have evaded the rest of the film, thereby depleting some of the movie’s accumulated charm. It can’t quite undo the goodwill generated by Haenel and Azaïs, but it’s enough to classify Love at First Fight as more of a promising debut than a fully successful film.