Romy Schneider tries to love political extremist Jean-Louis Trintignant until she starts worrying and changes her mind.
The debut feature of director Alain Cavalier, Le Combat dans l’île is a cross between political thriller and triangular romance that ultimately can’t quite register in full as either. This remnant from the era of the French New Wave had become mostly forgotten until very recently, when it received a significant release in several U.S markets, and even had its New York premiere. The names in the credits are nothing if not gaudy. Stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, Romy Schneider, and Henri Serre all should be familiar to those who enjoy European cinema of the 1960s. Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme would go on to shoot Army of Shadows and The Mother and the Whore after bathing the lead actors here in a very specific sort of darkness that recalls, in style if not mood, film noir. Louis Malle, with whom Cavalier had worked as an assistant director on The Lovers, carries a “Supervisor” credit, which seems roughly equivalent to a legally-required role as producer.
The more one knows (or cares) about French politics of this era, particularly the Algerian War, the more that angle will work. Trintignant plays the sour and violent son of a prominent businessman. A narrator informs the viewer that he spends two days each month meeting with a small group of right-wing extremists. His wife, Schneider in her first major role in a French film, gets tipped off that something is amiss when she finds a bazooka in their home. A vicious, unexpected slap from him to her at one point in the picture is at least a strong hint that their marriage might be near dissolution. He’s also fond of calling her a slut with minimal provocation. Even here, early on in the film, there’s an element of unexpectedness at work. The political component is still resting in the background yet each exchange tends to compound something wildly absent in confidence and success. Trintignant’s marriage is failing, his career has stumbled and his causes are all at odds with the majority. He’s reluctant to make that next move, whatever it might be.
How about a dose of political assassination? Trintignant’s Clément is contacted by the older Serge (Pierre Asso) to ultimately pull the trigger. At first, it appears to be mission accomplished, but, after going on the lam at the home of childhood friend Paul (Serre), Clément learns that Serge has betrayed him. This is the point when the film take a massive turn, shedding Trintignant when Clément goes in search of Serge and establishing a romance between Schneider’s Anne and Paul. It’s understandable to be taken aback by what might seem like unevenness but it’s really not the narrative (or its coherence) that makes the film interesting. The political aspect, too, was mostly lost on me and contained none of the gripping suspense of something like The Day of the Jackal or Z. Trintignant’s right-wing extremism is obviously painted so very harshly and he quickly becomes a loathsome character, especially in comparison to the left-leaning printer Paul. The film never bothers to explain any of the particulars beyond broad ideological differences so it can be difficult for outsiders to fully appreciate whatever subtleties exist. The almost inevitable romance between Anne and Paul can also come across as rather undeveloped, where the latter is necessary only as an alternative to Clément.
What saves the picture is a devil’s bargain of complications in ideology and extreme pretensions of style. Le Combat dans l’île fulfills its promise by shaking off the larger obligations in favor of the details. In this instance, those details include stylistic observations like Lhomme’s apparent intoxication with Romy Schneider, particularly emerging against black backgrounds. She looks gorgeous and Lhomme (and, presumably, Cavalier) knew it. Trintignant plays a similarly weak-minded patsy better in The Conformist but there’s still something rounded about his characterization here. He’s volatile and brimming with anger. The final confrontation with Serre carries more tension than all of the rest of the film and Trintignant’s way of playing his character with brashness but also utmost, insane conviction becomes really absorbing. He’s absolutely detestable here, a championing example for those who despise the extreme right. But there’s no way of denying his effectiveness. Cavalier dares to dilute the action by often not even showing major developments. It’s as though their importance falls to the side in favor of the humanity of Paul and Anne – love over violence.
The picture does give a distinct emphasis to this budding romance, if still shrugging off any need to show the specifics. It then moves into the realm of uneasy love story, though not really. Hints are planted early on regarding Anne and Paul and the lack of known courtship suggests that we’re not supposed to focus on much beyond their abandoning of Clément. Again, though, the film seems to be more concerned with a sense of teeming desire where one’s lover doesn’t have to be a political villain than any interest in comprehensive storytelling. Cavalier abandons that attitude of traditional plotting to show a rejection of the right via an almost ridiculing of such extremism. At no point is Trintignant a viable protagonist. He’s abusive and paranoid, alternatively weak and impatient, ultimately outsmarted. To ignore the political implications of the film would be absurd, but there’s still plenty more there awaiting us. Indeed, it’s the sheer volume of possible responses that motivates much of the goodwill for Cavalier’s feature. If you like to be jerked along instead of coddled then I think this film might be appealing. It’s always in fashion and often blooming, full of unhappy shadows from which glamorous movie stars emerge.
Zeitgeist Films has joined with The Film Desk to bring Le Combat dans l’île to R1 DVD. It’s an excellent edition quality-wise. An “About the Transfer” paragraph in the insert mentions that it was created from the original 35mm film negative and supervised by director of photography Pierre Lhomme. The transfer is progressive, sports hardly any damage, and has excellent contrast. Grain is evident but at fairly ideal levels. The detail available is impressive and almost surprisingly strong. A larger outfit could have comfortably given this high definition transfer an actual HD release on Blu-ray. It looks that good, where nothing seems manipulated or bothered, despite being on a single-layered disc. Aspect ratio is 1.66:1, enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Audio seems to be fine, though still suffering a little from some noticeable dubbing which obviously couldn’t have been helped for this release. The French mono track sounds clear and consistent, with volume levels more than acceptable. Effects such as gun shots do register well. English subtitles are optional and white in color. I saw nothing in the way of typos or errors.
Extra features aren’t abundant but the inclusion of a new short by Alain Cavalier must be seen as a positive. “France 1961” (13:14) was created especially for this release and has its director pan over photographs from the set as he reminisces about details of the production. It’s in French with optional English subtitles. Also here is a collection of rare behind-the-scenes photos that includes some taken from the Louis Malle archive. Lastly, a small insert includes a pair of essays, both warm and worthwhile. One is by Elliott Stein and argues, among other things, that the film doesn’t belong to the French New Wave, and the other is a reprint of a piece written by cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, which goes into detail about that same movement. All in all, Zeitgeist has done an admirable job of not only bringing this film to the public but doing so with noticeable care from both the technical and supplemental sides of the spectrum. Absolutely recommended.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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