Le Combat Dans L’île
directed by Alain Cavalier
starring Romy Schneider, Jean-Louis Trintignant
Alain Cavalier’s new wave thriller, Le Combat Dans L’île (1962), is set in the politically turbulent and often violent period in France, during the Algerian War for Independence, which saw a wave of assassinations and terror attacks committed by the pro-colonial Organisation armée secrète (OAS) throughout France. This is the same period in French history that inspired Frederick Forsyth’s classic novel The Day of the Jackal. The film is a curious beast that mixes a classic romantic triangle and fraught political climate as its heroine finds herself torn between two men: a right-wing terrorist and a socialist writer and publisher.
An already toxic couple, Anne (Romy Schneider) and Clement (Jean-Louis Trintignant) find their marriage increasingly strained by Clement’s devotion to a violent right-wing political movement. When the heat gets too close after Clement assassinates a government official, the couple hides out in the country with his old friend Paul (Henri Serre), who runs a small socialist press. Despite the men’s disparate political beliefs, Paul aids his friend, but when Paul leaves to hunt down the man who betrayed him, Anne rediscovers her independent spirit and she and Paul slowly fall in love. Months later, Clement returns with violent consequences.
Even by the cold and distant standard of the French New Wave, Le Combat Dans L’île is a cold and distant film. Though usually classified as a thriller, the film is far more about a woman regaining her own voice once distanced from an oppressive marriage, with the political intrigue taking a far less prominent role. Although the central conflict is with Anne deciding who to give her heart to, it really isn’t much of a choice. Clement is, from the jump, shown to be an utter bastard who is so controlling and abusive that there is no logical choice between him and Paul’s gentle-soul idealist. The nuance of the political strife is so faded 60 years later as to be meaningless, but I’m certain it had much more impact in its day. Although the film’s title translates to “Fight on the Island,” the actual battle between Anne’s two romantic rivals amounts to little, as the correct choice is glaringly obvious.
These shortcomings aside, the film is a striking piece of cinema with its gorgeous monochrome cinematography and wondrous performance from Romy Schneider. She owns the film, making the audience immediately fall in love with her, utterly captivated in seeing her free-spirited Anne rediscover herself, only to have her happiness threatened by the return of Clement. As Anne rediscovers herself, Schneider’s acting is lovely and delicate. In place of fiery speeches, she simply rekindles her love of the little pleasures of life, including long lazy afternoons on a boat listening to music and being at peace after her exciting but dangerous life with Clement.
Le Combat Dans L’île is not a film that gets much discussion, but it has been released on DVD previously and this new Blu-ray from Radiance Films is a terrific upgrade. It is always heartening to see labels take chances on films that deserve a bigger audience. Although not a classic in the league of Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player, Le Combat Dans L’île is nonetheless a great watch and a captivating bit of French cinema.