“Paris at the end of winter…” Perhaps this opening quote signifies a time of rebirth, and in 1962 the nouvelle vague had left the cinematic world reeling with an entirely new way to consider the medium. The crest was yet to be, and in its midst was released this little-loved work that hearkened back to an earlier time. While Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol released experimental pieces that burst with invention, Alain Cavalier debuted with Le Combat Dans L’Ile, which could not be more classical in nature. The camera static, the dialogue polished, the construction like a clockwork of precision; this appeared to attempt a pull back from the spontaneous attitude of other directors of the time. Cavalier was hardly the reverse iconoclast, though. He worked previously under Louis Malle. It would be unfair to categorize him as conventional; after all, this is a tightly wound and complicated work that defies easy description. Overtly a story about a political extremist involved in a love triangle, Le Combat is a study in behavior, and challenges you to respond with your own as you consider where these characters must go.
Jean-Louis Trintignant (as Clement) exudes malevolence in an icy performance that manages to allow a juvenile vulnerability; he is a member of a right wing extremist group and becomes part of an assassination attempt on a liberal deputy who is allied with trade unions. There is no better imaginable choice than Trintignant, who appears to be chewing nails between takes. He lives with Anne, played by Romy Schneider, who is the very picture of a dependent personality. She is nothing without her man, and it is obvious that Clement has been drifting away from her for some time. She is carefree, the flirty center of any party, particularly the nightclubs that Clement despises. Even when she works the room, her roots are set carefully into her husband, who is tiring of her simple pleasures and apolitical attitude. His father is a wealthy industrialist, but his son thinks he is a coward for not exerting harder pressure upon the communists and taking more direct control of a France he sees as decadent and dying. He has had enough. After quitting his job, he prepares a bazooka in the parlor (which Anne has discovered in a closet, evoking minimal shock). He is effusive: “No family, work, or money. I am a free man.” A clever joke, since only the illusion of freedom graces the rest of his life on the run; this is the mantra of one who seeks greatness with no clear idea of how to achieve it. He only seems vaguely aware that his vision of an ideal lifestyle is incompatible with nearly everyone he knows, including his wife.
After the assassination attempt, he is betrayed by a comrade for monetary reasons, and he must go underground. He hides with Paul (played by Henri Serre), a friend from school with whom he took a blood oath when such things were taken seriously. As it turns out, none of these individuals have ever really grown up, and Clement in particular is as impulsive and unwise as a schoolboy. His performance here presages his immortal turn in The Conformist, where reactionary ideology is equated with sexual dysfunction. And the suggestion is buried here as well, as Clement has a great deal of compensation to deal with. Paul is a leftist working with the trade union; he is more careful, but even so is not above being pulled back into the fray when his hand is forced. Clement must leave the country for various reasons, Anne being ballast easily disposed of. She is more than aware of her dependent nature, and her self-loathing for this leechlike quality is plain upon her face despite her empty smiles. Whereas romances in film are often unreasonably quick, her attachment to Paul more than makes sense. A plant uprooted dries up rapidly, and she is quick to set down new ones in this safe and comfortable man.
This love triangle grows more complex with time, and is inseparable from the political commentary borne by extremist Clement and liberal Paul. In 1962 the French occupation of Algeria was reaching its ignominious end, and the OAS attempted to kill president De Gaulle several times. Interestingly, the politics of Le Combat Dans L’ile takes a backseat to personal drama after Clement flees the country. In Cavalier’s view, the right and left wing’s skirmishes are but distractions from that which makes life worth living. Anne resumes her acting career, and there is music, art, and love. Until Clement returns to muck up the fun, anyway. His patriot games are made all the more ridiculous when he is betrayed by a compatriot and his cell collapses – all the while his wife is having it off with the new handsome stranger. If he did not value freedom over love before, he convinces himself he does later. But then, youth rarely understands what is important until age renders such knowledge moot.
The plot plays second fiddle to the dance of human behavior that flows organically from the characters established. Clement is a heedless and rash child utterly convinced that his moral code is synonymous with the political movement he eventually shitcans entirely. Paul is a more steady individual, but still unwisely is drawn to Anne despite his loyalty to his friend. Anne needs a warm body, but she also appears to secretly thrive on this fight over her. When Clement returns to claim her, she states who she is with in a way too blithely to be interested in peace. She wanted her ex to know who won the exchange, and is not terribly surprised when Clement finally gives up a pretense of political activism and embarks upon his personal vendetta. All the while, these corners of the triangle are mannered, and willing to play their prescribed parts to whatever end. Cavalier understands that for all their notions of free will, humans are a predictable rabble, and tend to follow circumscribed paths. And so it is with our characters, who take a circuitous route that returns right back to where they belong for the denouement.
Le Combat Dans L’île (or Battle on the Island, also known as Fire and Ice) reflects a classical sensibility with an awareness of the interplay between political ideals and personal travails. Crisply shot and immaculately performed, this is a fine consideration of human behavior in all its obscure glory. The cinematographer, Pierre Lhomme, notes in his illuminating essay included with the DVD that black and white shots are more cinematic. As he puts it, “you communicate to the audience that they are watching a film. Shooting in color, on the other hand, implies a portrayal of reality.” The poetry of the former is intact on screen. That statement may be unnecessarily exclusive, but considering how few directors made decent use of color, I cannot argue.