Film Review: Le Combat Dans L'ile

Alain Cavalier’s New Wave thriller is a tasty French mix of politics and romance, while glorifying that iconic goddess, Romy Schneider.

A fascinating remnant from the French New Wave cinematic movement, Alain Cavalier’s Le Combat Dans L’ile, made in 1962 and receiving its North American premiere, is at once a gripping political thriller and a romantic triangle which should please Francophiles and art-house audiences with its moody concerns and flavorful period evocation of Paris and the French countryside.

Clément (Jean Louis Trintignant) is a member of a right-wing terrorist organization who becomes involved in a political assassination attempt. A member of his gang betrays him and he hides out with his wife Anne (Romy Schneider) in the country home of a childhood friend, Paul (Henri Serre). Clément defines macho, with his surly incommunicativeness and sudden outbursts of violence, with Anne often its recipient. Paul, by contrast, is a gentle pacifist, and as affection grows between him and Anne, the emotional as well as political tension mounts.

Cavalier proves himself just as confident in cinematic technique as his more celebrated contemporaries, Truffaut and Godard, while possessing a more traditional style of storytelling—in the tradition of Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carne, less prone to flashily “innovative” techniques. At the time, France was embroiled in controversial entanglements in Vietnam and Algeria, and there was a fear that the country was drifting towards fascism. Cavalier addressed these concerns, but he ran into governmental censorship problems and had to excise footage which resulted in a certain obscurity in his plotting.

Trintignant plays an earlier version of the Fascist collaborator role he later essayed in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and with his full-lipped Frank Sinatra-but-handsomer face, he brings a stoic sensuality to the role which goes far to explain—in lieu of any scripted appeal—why his abused wife would stay with him despite her mistreatment. Serre’s calm, reflective character echoes his work in another more famous movie, Jules and Jim, and he provides a convincingly alluring peaceful haven, not to mention living in a mill house which is a Gallic dream of rustic heaven.

The beautiful, tragic Schneider, hitherto best-known for her frothy portrayal of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth in the Sissi trilogy of films, found a new, meatier dramatic career for herself with this film, and, without putting too fine a point on it, Cavalier’s camera—the rich black-and-white photography is by Pierre Lhome—has a love affair with her perfect, goddess-y features and invitingly uninhibited body. Her Anne is the most normal of woman, fond of parties and pretty things, the very type to attract the most unlikely of partners, here personified by the humorless, soul-destroying Clément.