The opening scene to Thomas Cailley’s directorial debut Les Combattants, sets the tone and precedence for the rest of this genial, absorbing romantic drama. We see two brothers, solemnly looking on as they sit in a cold, uninviting room at a local undertaker’s, picking out the coffin they wish to use for their father’s burial. But there’s a sense of frivolity counteracting the severity of the issue at hand, and letting the viewer know that despite the setting and themes at play, they’re in a for a playful, almost tongue-in-cheek affair, which thrives, predominantly, on subtlety, playing on observational, naturalistic themes to induce laughter.

The brothers are Manu (Antoine Laurent) and Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), who, after deciding the wood on offer is too cheap, go back and build the coffin themselves. Good with their hands, the diligent pair take on construction job, which is where the latter meets Madeleine (Adéle Haenel), but not for the first time. In fact, just days previous the pair had fought on the beach – and it wasn’t Arnaud who was the strongest. Madeleine is an uncompromising figure with her heart set on enlisting for the army – she’s committed, determined, and enjoyed pushing herself to the limit. The pair could not be more different, but as the old saying goes, opposites attract…

At its core, and from a narrative perspective at least, Cailley’s endeavour – which he co-wrote with Claude Le Pape (great surname) – revels, affectionately, in traditionalism, as a romance that abides by the tropes of the genre, of two people who are seemingly incompatible, and originally begin with a cloud of animosity hanging over them, only to then have a change of heart. Cailley subverts many aspects of the genre while remaining faithful to a recognisable linearity and structure that we can identify and adhere to. The conventionality in that regard is extended to the visual experience, which seems almost grainy, enhancing the sentiment that this is a classic love story, almost without any sense of era – it could take place at any time.

Les Combattants is also brilliantly funny in parts, particularly in the early stages, as the dialogue between Arnaud and his friends is remarkably well-judged, and very droll in its execution. Yet Madeleine is without doubt the greatest comic creation, seemingly without any sense of humour and endearingly defeated by her own sense of pride. She’s reminiscent of Nick Frost’s Mike in Spaced in that regard. There is a comical satirising of the army too (or in this case, a boot camp) – with comedy deriving from how seriously people take it, despite the triviality that exists.

Both roles are very easy to get along with too, as Arnaud is sincere and equable, managing to be elusive and internalised in parts, only to wear his heart on his sleeve in others. This is imperative in this production working – as films of this ilk tend to only work when you root for, and invest in the relationship at hand, which is a given in this instance. There are definitely shades of Kings of Summer and I Declare War to this piece, but there’s a certain exuberance that sets this feature apart.