It’s World War II, and France faces a hostile Nazi occupation. You wouldn’t know it from the children, however, as “War of the Buttons” uses the war as a macro-micro contrast with the tale of a group of youths protecting their territory from a group of would-be mini-hooligans. The troops may be coping with casualties on all sides, and regular French citizens deal with day-to-day bullying by Gestapo strongmen attempting to suss out Jewish citizens in hiding, but none seem aware of the War of the Buttons. It's a turf war where kids come at each other with sticks and fists, antagonizing each other as they attempt to seize each others’ land before retreating to secret hideaways and, more often, their home lives with overworked lower class parents. See, it’s metaphor! The Weinstein Company acquired this French hit to be released stateside, and with its mixture of kids, World War II and Nazis, it seemed like a sure bet for some Oscar attention. But because theirs is a slate that includes “The Master, “Django Unchained,“ “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Intouchables,” the brothers Weinstein discovered what audiences will discover this weekend: the film is achingly and predictably inessential.
There’s something very old school Hollywood about this tale, where children throw toothless epithets at each other and barely harm their neighbors with more than a light scar or a bruised eye. The conflict escalates when squad leader Lebrac (Jean Texier) takes a few lessons about urban warfare from the town’s plucky top educator (Guillaume Canet) via history, and decides to make his victories count. Now, when rival kids enter their territory, they are captured, and their buttons are plucked from their clothing, taken away as tribute.
But the hormonal Lebrac, who resembles the faint manliness of Christian Bale in “Newsies,” is a victim to Cupid’s bow, falling for the local new girl Violette (Ilona Bachelier). With an angry, condescending working class father at home and an ineffectual mother, Lebrac finds a home away from home as the leader of his friendly child mob. But he starts to have reservations as soon as he realizes that Violette, like most kid-flick dream girls, has a more enlightened view of violence. To ratchet up the dramatic irony, Violette and her mother Simone (Laetitia Casta) are also Jewish, hiding their ethnicity and moving from town to town to escape the watchful eye of Nazi soldiers.
Not that they wouldn’t have much luck in this aspect. The Nazis in “War of the Buttons” are as threatening as the child gangs. Characters constantly sneak away from them, hiding behind walls and corners, escaping their gaze as they goose-step obliviously around the Jewish locals right under their noses. Though they carry guns, they might as well be armed like the creampie-toting villains of “Bugsy Malone” – in one scene, they are outfoxed so handily by a boilerplate cockamamie scheme that their sniveling leader throws a vintage Warner Bros. style hissy fit, complete with helmet tossed into the ground. Presumably, restraint was maintained to avoid animating literal cartoon clouds of frustration emanating from his ears.
“War of the Buttons” is consciously light, much like the unthreatening foreign productions that provided the award-winning foundations for Miramax in the early '90s. Though it’s hard to say stuff like “Cinema Paradiso” or “Il Postino” were so craven as 'Buttons,' which even features a malnourished kewpie sidekick in the gang, who stutters as he repeats and often mangles the threats and strategies of his elders in the group. It’s further evidence that “War of the Buttons” attempts to gloss over the tragedies of the real-life horror of that day (whitewashed through an idyllic romance between the handsome and boring Canet and Casta) in order to rib-nudge through a flimsy allegory too dim for the blue-hairs who frequent this bloodless stuff, and too dull and paint-by-numbers for those seeking a beginners' course in foreign period films. [D]