Le Combat dans l’île (1962)
dir. Alain Cavalier
Review By Greg Klymkiw
I love black and white movies.
I’m not saying I prefer black and white to colour, or that it’s superior in any way, but for me, black and white photography – when used in movies – forces the deep examination (or at least acknowledgement) of various shades of grey with respect to the political, thematic and/or emotional qualities of the work itself. While it might be argued that my preference for cinema in b/w is purely subjective and relates strictly to preferring the ‘look’, I’d counter that the visual qualities take a back seat to cinematic storytelling elements, which indeed go far deeper than mere surface.
One of my favourite movies of all time is Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, a picture that details the grimy nightlife of New York press agents and gossip columnists. Most importantly is how b/w renders NYC itself – a city seen mostly from dusk to dawn – replete with violence, excitement, electricity, deception and despair. It is a city where the film's star Burt Lancaster, upon witnessing a violent drunken altercation outside a nightclub, literally salutes the swill around him and declares, "I love this dirty town".
Seen through the lens of cinematographer James Wong Howe, the atmosphere of Sweet Smell of Success and its setting – both exhilarating and rank with people and places of the most odious variety – would, if filmed in colour, make a completely different film. The world of the picture can ONLY exist in monochrome – a world replete with multi-layered emotions, desires and intentions. In a contemporary context, colour is often seen as ‘reality’ whereas anyone consciously choosing b/w is seen as applying a heavy brush of artifice and mediating the vision in some impure, unreal fashion. This is nonsense, of course. Aesthetically and narratively, the literal shades of grey that only monochrome can deliver are precisely what reveal and explore the thematic and emotional shades of grey that make the movie so powerful.
Is it artificial? You bet! All cinematic art (to varying degrees) involves the application of artifice. In this sense, the use of black and white is no less ‘real’ than colour.
And maybe, just maybe, it's more real.
I discovered the great Alain Cavalier picture Le Combat dans l’île a couple of years ago in the days leading up to Dominion Day (unimaginatively renamed Canada Day in the 1980s) – a celebration instituted by Mother England among the Commonwealth to celebrate its official status as the greatest colonial power in the world. Aptly, I viewed Le Combat dans l’île on plasma in my hideaway on the extreme northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula – a piece of land that was colonised not once, but twice – first, rather benignly by the French and secondly, less benignly by the British. In both cases, the Peninsula’s aboriginal nations were decimated by genocide, pestilence and the influx of land-gobbling inbred miscreants from the northern reaches of the UK. The Dominion of Canada still maintains official ties to the Crown of England, though it does so with unfettered self-determination, unlike the abused and exploited aboriginal nations before it.
In any event, it seems utterly appropriate for me to have watched the fabulous Zeitgeist Films DVD release of Le Combat dans l’île within the context of a colonial celebration in a region endlessly pillaged by the masters of colonisation. After all, Cavalier made the picture in the waning days of France’s Algerian War when le beau pays was fraught with division regarding its place as a colonial power. Reflecting those turbulent times, director Cavalier crafted an intensely powerful film – passionate, boldly political, charged with violence, rife with betrayal and sexy as all get-out.
And get this – it’s in black and white!
And yes, the shades of grey within the narrative itself begin early on in the proceedings as we’re introduced to Anne (Romy Schneider) and Clément (Jean-Louis Tritignant). Anne is a former actress who has abandoned her artistic calling to fulfil the role of dutiful wife to Clément. Her hedonistic qualities seem unfairly hemmed in by this arrangement and though she appears to love her husband, her happy-go-lucky nature in social situations wavers between innocent and overtly flirtatious.
Clément is clearly smitten with her charms when they’re alone, but less so in public (where he assumes she's trying to seduce everyone but him). The moronic jealousy-magma roiling in his head would (as it always is with us men) be better served if it travelled to the head located in the southerly nether regions below his torso to perform his husbandly duties instead of indulging in his envy-green imagination. With Romy Schneider as his wife – a catch if there ever were one – he’s a lucky fella indeed and should really be flushing out his obsessive jealousy.
Then again, the picture itself is firmly rooted in a neo-noir world where seemingly lucky (or unlucky) guys can never properly see what’s staring them right in the face. This is certainly the deal with rock-headed Clément. He comes from a wealthy family, holds a cushy, work-free position with his Father, a powerful industrialist, and yet, seeks rather pathetically to become ‘political’. He chastises Daddy for kowtowing to Liberal sentiments, leaves the firm and allows himself to be duped by conservative extremists into assassinating a key left-wing political figure.
In spite of all this, Anne is devoted to him. While she leaves Clément after one of his upper-magma-head outbursts, she soon returns to be his loyal sex kitten. When he’s betrayed after a foiled assassination attempt, his mug plastered all over the newspapers and television screens, she turns into his faithful moll and heads on the lam with him.
Things go awry when they shack up with his old chum Paul (Henri Serre), a sensitive lefty who eventually cottons on to Clément’s right-wing terrorist shenanigans. When our not-so-clear-headed hero takes off on an odyssey of revenge, Anne falls in love with Paul, who rekindles her acting career and a belief in a life of gentle compassion. It is, however, just a matter of time before Clément returns and wants Anne back, and given his transformation from a misguided, somewhat inept terrorist into a cold-hearted killer, the proceedings inevitably point to a showdown.
And what a showdown it is!
And if you haven’t guessed already, Le Combat dans l’île is one terrific picture!
Given the state of the world at this point in time, Le Combat dans l’île seems as vibrantly relevant as it must have been upon its first release in 1962. We currently live in a world where America, purporting to be a saviour, is little more than a colonial power – using Band-Aid solutions to pacify its near-Third World domestic conditions and forcing itself upon Muslim nations in order to control their wealth. Equally, we live in a world where young men on the extremist Muslim side, some from desperate straits and others from positions of privilege, are duped into committing acts of violence in the name of God and ultimately, to maintain control of the wealth America seeks to steal from them.
The puppet masters in both cases have everything to gain, while the puppets have everything to lose. And this is why Clément is never fully reprehensible as a character, at least not during the first two-thirds of the picture. Jean-Louis Tritignant’s great performance allows us to empathise with Clément. Through a sexy, tough-as-nails exterior we see a character who thinks he is making active decisions, but is, more often than not, manipulated by those who are quick to take advantage of his need for political fulfilment. In a sense, Clément reminds me of Tom Neal’s hapless, hard-boiled oaf in Edgar Ulmer’s noir classic Detour – so easily seduced, so easily duped, so easily abandoned – and we do feel for him in spite of all his miscalculations and failings.
I love how Cavalier’s script (with dialogue by Jean-Paul Rappeneau) adds very subtle details to Clément’s character, which in turn force Tritignant to engage in the thespian callisthenics of subtle, delicate shading. Perhaps the best example of this is the manner in which Tritignant conveys his relationship to his father and to his family’s money: there’s a sense that what he needs is not acceptance, coddling or an easy ride from his père, but love – pure and simple – a love that might have saved him from the arms of an 'evil' seductress.
That seductress is not the nasty ice-blooded femme fatale in Edgar Ulmer's noir classic Detour (exhuberantly played by the late, great Ann Savage whose final role, as Guy Maddin’s mother Herdis in My Winnipeg was one of the great swan songs in movie history). Clément’s temptress in Le Combat dans l’île is something far more insidious than a steely, deadly blonde, but turns out to be the extreme right wing and its insatiable need for power through colonisation, exploitation and deadly terror tactics.
This is, after all, neo-noir, not film noir – where misplaced idealism takes the place of a flesh-and-blood hottie.
If anything, the entity Clément admires most is what brings him down. He seeks acceptance from nobody other than himself – a worthy enough goal, but one that renders him irrevocably and tragically prostate to the whims of New World Order-styled power brokers.
Another fascinating element of Cavalier’s picture is the use of trinity within the narrative structure. This is manifested on a thematic and character level through the numerous triangles that stem from Clément himself. The first involves Clément, his wife Anne and his almost romantic obsession with the Bitch Goddess that is not flesh and blood, but the perverse ideals of the right wing. The second concerns his inability to bond with his father, his intense need to find his way in the world through politicisation of the most reprehensible kind and the fact that, ironically, his father is as much a part of the New World Order as the crackpots Clément is aligned with. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, is the literal love triangle between Clément, Anne and his old childhood pal Paul.
As played by the sensitive, aquiline-featured Henri Serre, Paul is Trintignant’s opposite in every way, and given Anne’s warmth and vibrancy, he becomes the left-wing White Knight (or, if you will, Red Knight) in Shining Armour. Serre, by the way, was no neophyte when it came to love triangles, having played the role of Jim in the ultimate cinematic rendering of the ménage à trois, Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – released, incidentally, the same year as Le Combat dans l’île.
Trinity is, of course, an extremely important element within the context of classical cinema, and Cavalier comes from a great tradition of French filmmakers who dazzled us with their commitment to a time-honoured storytelling form while, at the same time, maintaining clear, individual voices. While Cavalier made this picture during the period of French cinema's nouvelle vague, he is closer to the spirit of Jean Renoir, HG Clouzot and Jean-Pierre Melville (who delightfully makes a cameo appearance in the picture as un membre de l’organisation) than to the style-over-emotional-substance approach of someone like Jean-Luc Godard.
Le Combat dans l’île is the work of a great artist who works within a very structured narrative environment – approaching his mise en scène with the assuredness of a master, in spite of the fact that this is his first film. This is especially astounding to me. When it comes to contemporary filmmakers and their debut work, so much emphasis is placed by reviewers on pure (albeit occasional brilliant) visual flourishes, or worse, the obviousness of those like Christopher ‘One Idea’ Nolan or Wes (Aren't I cute?) Anderson who are armed only with trick-pony approaches to rendering drama. Cavalier’s mature, intelligent and genuinely emotional work in Le Combat dans l’île makes most of the aforementioned lot look like a playpen full of rank amateurs. Cavalier’s precision and attention to story detail is something that more young filmmakers should emulate, while the few real film critics left in the mainstream (and who should know better) need to bestow fewer accolades upon the masturbatory gymnastics of the poseurs.
And despite the claims of auteuristes and their apologists, movies are not made in a vacuum. With this debut feature, Cavalier was blessed to have as producer and mentor Louis Malle, a great classical filmmaker in his own right for whom Cavalier served previously as an assistant director. In addition to the co-authorship of Jean Paul Rappeneau (who would go on to direct Cyrano and The Horseman on the Roof, contemporary entries in the French classical cinema sweepstakes, though far less dazzling and more workmanlike than the works of Cavalier, Clouzot, Melville, et al), Le Combat dans l’île is stunningly shot in magnificent black and white by Pierre Lhomme, who went on to shoot, among many others, such classics as Melville’s Army of Shadows, Someone Behind the Door, one of the great French Euro-trash thrillers starring Charles Bronson, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and mon préféré du bonbon pervers du cinéma, Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie.
Cavalier’s most prominent collaborators, however, are his fabulous trio of central performers. Romy Schneider, after many historical roles in form-wrenching period girdles, made her debut here in a contemporary story and acquitted herself magnificently as Anne, the woman who acts as a deadly wedge between the two leading male characters. (With this film, Schneider also proves, that the girdles were, except for adherence to historical accuracy in her previous work, completely unnecessary.)
Serre as Anne’s lefty saviour has, without question, never been better (save, perhaps, for Jules et Jim). There is both peace and sadness in his eyes, yet his transformation from a gentle, lonely man to someone infused with both the passion of love and the requisite savagery needed for self-preservation makes him a more-than-perfect male counterpart to Trintignant.
All said and done, however, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who eventually gave an equally stunning performance (in a somewhat similar role) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, continually delivers the unexpected in the role of Clément. One aspect of his performance I love is his eventual transformation into a major creep – from an empathetic dupe, he slowly morphs into something that is, frankly, skin-crawlingly malevolent. It’s here where one pines for his character’s redemption even more vigorously than before, all the while sensing futility in such an exercise. It's a fleshy performance in a role endowed with an abundance of strata.
Shades of grey, it would seem, never offer easy solutions or pat feelings. In Le Combat dans l’île, they offer a rich neo-noir patisserie of the highest order, deliciously, thrillingly and densely layered.
Oh yes, and have I mentioned how great it looks in black and white?
"Le Combat dans l’île" MUST be seen, but to see it on film, on a big screen is a very special treat. For those living in Toronto, the TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinematheque programme from James Quandt will afford you this opportunity during the "Summer in France" series. For playdates, showtimes and tickets, visit the TIFF website HERE. Then, please consider purchasing the Zeitgeist Films exquisite DVD release.
To assist with the maintenance of this site, feel free to purchase "Le Combat dans l’île" from Zeitgeist Films by directly clicking on the Amazon Links below.
This review is a rewritten and re-edited version of a piece first published in my column "Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada" in the very cool UK movie mag "Electric Sheep - a deviant view of cinema". Feel free to visit HERE.