Le Combat dans l'île(Zeitgeist Films, 6.22.2010)
Alain Cavalier has directed only a handful of films over the past five decades and he is rarely mentioned in any histories of French cinema, but his first feature, Le Combat dans l'île, is terrific. I had never heard of this 1962 film until it was revived at Manhattan’s Film Forum in June 2009, receiving a rave review from A.O. Scott in The New York Times. The film's quality leaves me wondering how many other excellent but obscure titles from this period are lurking out there.
Le Combat dans l'île succeeds as both a political thriller and a drama about a romantic triangle. Clêment (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Romy Schneider) are a seemingly happy bourgeois couple, though he has made her abandon her acting career and has issues with his manufacturer father (Jacques Berlioz). Clêment is also a member of a violent right wing political group that carries out assassinations. Clêment’s best friend in the group, Serge (Pierre Asso), has committed several political murders around the world since 1927. Helpful Serge accompanies Clêment, armed with a bazooka, on his young friend’s first hit.
Serge advises him to go into hiding, so Clêment and Anne -- who has already had problems with her cold, distracted, and violent husband -- visit the country cottage of Paul (Henri Serre), a printer and Clêment’s boyhood best friend. Through news accounts, Clêment learns that the intended victim is alive, having been tipped-off, and that the betrayer is none other than Serge. All the while, Anne notices that Paul, a widower, is everything Clêment is not: tender, thoughtful, artistic. The boulibase soon hits the fan.
Cavalier is best known for the quite different Thérèse (1986), which concerns a nun who becomes a saint and won six Cesars, including best film and best director. Although he is never mentioned as belonging to the nouvelle vague, the style of Le Combat dans l'île fits in with what Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were doing at the same time. For example, Cavalier cuts off scenes long before they end, as when the jealous Clêment starts a brawl with a friend of Anne.
Several scenes are masterful. Cavalier jumps from a newspaper photo of the destruction leveled by Clêment’s bazooka to a patriotic war painting in his dining room, as Anne natters on about changing curtains and wallpapers. The best moment in the film comes with a slow pan from Paul’s kitchen -- where his housekeeper (Diane Lepvrier) is listening to news on the radio -- to the dining room. Tension builds because of the revelations in the news, including a recording of a telephone conversation with the traitor, ending at the dinner table with Clêment trying to hide his nervousness, Paul is oblivious and Anne is shocked when she recognizes Serge’s voice on the recording. There are many other clever touches, including the subtle way Cavalier reveals the inevitable Anne-Paul liaison.
As a combination of political thriller and sexually charged melodrama, Le Combat dans l'île merges favorite themes of Louis Malle -- who produced the film for his former assistant -- and Jean-Pierre Melville, who supposedly appears somewhere in the film, though I can’t find him. Zeitgeist Films’ terrific transfer does justice to the atmospheric cinematography of Pierre Lhomme, who would later use this same combination of natural light and shadows for Melville’s Army of Shadows.
Serre plays Paul with even more understated nonchalance than he displayed the same year in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Trintignant offers the patented mixture of cool surface with neurotic insecurities bubbling underneath that he would refine as the sixties progressed, culminating in his career-defining performance in Bernardo Bertolucci’s quite similar The Conformist.
Trintignant demonstrates several variations on sulkiness after Clêment discovers the personal is more important than the political. Even better is the luminous Schneider (The Trial), who has little dialogue but conveys Anne’s confusion and uncertainties mainly through glances at her husband and lover. For a French film, Le Combat dans l'île has very little dialogue, with Cavalier aiming his camera at his actors and trusting them to convey the appropriate emotions without words.
The main extra on this disc is the 13-minute France 1961, in which an unseen Cavalier looks at stills from the film and reflects upon his first feature. He remembers not being able to hear the actors because of inadequate equipment. He also explains that he offered the part of Paul to Trintignant, but the actor wanted to play the villain. The director discusses the film's political background -- extremists opposed to Charles de Gaulle’s Algerian policy -- and mentions the influence of Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson and American film noir without going into any great detail. Another extra presents nine behind-the-scenes photos, most of which are seen in France 1961.
The disc also comes with a booklet insert featuring two essays: “On the Nouvelle Vague and Working with Alain Cavalier” by cinematographer Lhomme and “The Traditional and the Transitional” by critic Elliott Stein. Lhomme argues that Cavalier was one of two dozen directors as important to the early sixties as Godard and Truffaut. The cinematographer also explains how he used diffused lighting and writes that black and white is more artistic than color. Stein reflects upon the careers of Cavalier, Trintignant, Schneider and Lhomme. -- Michael Adams