Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider dazzle in Le Combat dans l’île, their first film together. It’s a political allegory played out through a melodramatic love story and visualised as a noir. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Clément, the son of a rich industrialist who’s involved with a crypto-fascist revolutionary group that plans to assassinate a left-wing politician. Schneider is Anne, his wife, a foreigner and formerly an actress, ignorant of her husband’s doings until the maid finds a package in the closet that turns out to be a bazooka.
The film reminded me of Ascenseur pur l’échefaud/ Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, France, 1958) in its spare compositions, low-angle shots on people, wonderings through Paris, acute evocation of mood; and also in the close-ups on faces, the use of silence, and even the way the score is used (though here its mostly Mozart instead of Miles Davis). Both films convey a loneliness, a desperation in love and a quest for meaning that can be characterized as existential; and both convey a textured intensity of feeling that nonetheless seems overhung with ennui. I wasn’t surprised to see Louis Malle listed as producer in the credits.
Romy Schneider is at her most beautiful and touching in Le Combat dans l’île; but then, I seem to feel that each time I see her. She’s exquisite here, still with a trace of baby fat but already seeming simultaneously transparent and mysterious; and capable of expressing a great range of emotion with delicacy and feeling. Le Combat dans l’île was her first film in France where she was to make her home and do her greatest work. Her Anne is extraordinary in that she’s able to convey the extrovert’s life one associates with an actress, her knowledge that her husband is shutting that life down, making it smaller, her love for her husband, and, when he beats her, her fear, hurt. and yes, arousal. Schneider not only succeeds in getting an audience to understand her Anne, but also, whilst invoking admiration for her beauty and skill as an actress, simultaneously incites a feeling of protectiveness towards her character. We understand and are with Schneider’s Anne.
Trintignant matches Schneider and is to me the revelation of Le Combat dans l’îsle . He looks very young here and very attractive. There are moments when he comes out of the darkness and into the frame where the lighting highlights long eye-lashes and a full lower lip. He’s short but wiry and gives the impression of being quietly coiled but primed for violence. His political fervor is rendered as an arousal brought on by a feeling of mastery that also helps to explain his relationship to his wife.
There’s a scene mid-way through the film, when Anne and Clément are in the woods, which beautifully illustrates this sudden burst into the unexpected: Like most scenes between Clément and Anne, it is characterized by a hint of violence that is also a hint of sex, and by a mutual affection that nonetheless victimizes her. It’s like they both find that danger sexy, and maybe for the same reason — the clarity of his dominance;. However, she’s also very much a bird with clipped wings and revolts at the same time as she sumbits.
In the woods, he tells her he’s going to kill the former colleague who’s since betrayed him, and she, aghast at the thought but also at what that might do to them, to her, tells him ‘I wanted to live and you’re killing me. You’re destroying me bit by bit. You’ll end up by killing me too.’ As she says this, he gives a kind of gleeful smile, not at the thought of doing so, but because he finds such power exciting; it makes him feel alive. Trintignant then chases after her nuzzling her neck affectionately without letting go of her hold on him, almost as if he loves her so much and is so insecure of his hold on her that he’s got to force it.
These are fascinating and original acting choices on the part of Trintignant and they’re thrilling to watch. I loved the moment where he stares at himself on a knife at breakfast or when he goes to kiss Anne in his final attempt to win her back and tenderly places a fist on either side of her neck before trying to kiss her. One can’t quite decide whether it’s adolescent confusion or underplayed psychosis that Trintignant is intending but these choices vividly convey why Anne continues to fancy him and why she stays whilst also showing how clearly he is capable of killing someone. It’s a great performance, one that makes of Clément a vivid contrasts to Paul (Henri Serre), the other man in what eventually turns into a triangle.
Clément and Paul are blood-brothers from childhood. The film uses them as structural opposites in the narrative; Clément is short, Paul tall; one lives in the city, the other in an old mill in the country; one is married, one is widowed; one is right-wing, the other at least a democrat. One loses Anne; the other wins her; one forbids her to act, the other provides the platform in which she can shine. It’s too bad that the bad guy is a much better actor. Henri Serre then on a career high due to playing Jim in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, looks the part beautifully but diminishes his contributions to the film each time he opens his mouth. It’s very easy to understand why in spite of his initial celbritiy he never quite became a star.
The film gets its title from the final combat between Clément and Paul on the island. The battle is for Anne of course but it’s also for a politic, a way of life, and a particular kind of future. I’m not well versed enough in French history to know what the film is allegorizing though it doesn’t take too great a knowledge of history to note that it’s related to then recent Algerian war,. However, such knowledge is not necessary to appreciate this moody, beautiful film which seems to shape a whole way of life and a set of moral attitudes out of shadows and light; and the way that that light hits fog, fire and ice, in the country and in the city.
Le Combat dans l’îsle is a film of the nouvelle vague by one of its lesser lights (I’d never heard of Alain Cavalier before this). It references Godard and À bout de souffle/ Breathless directly when Clément goes to find his wife at the ‘hôtel de Suède’ room no. 12. It also references Truffaut through the casting of Serre. Pierre Lhomme, who’s work here is so great also worked with Jean-Pierre Melville on L’Armée de ombre/ Army of Shadows (which would have been such a great title for this film had it not already been taken). But these are peripheral reasons to see the film.
Le Combat dans l’îsle deserves to be seen for the beauty of its images, the intensity of the mood it creates, the economy with which the two assassinations are depicted (a lesson to any young filmmaker in how to do very powerful scenes on the cheap), the extraordinary performances of Schneider and Trintingant and the complex and exciting depiction of sexual attraction.
Aside from some of the voice-over narration, so typical of noir, my only complaint with Le Combat dans l’îsle is the knowledge that if Clément’s politics had been left instead of right, it would have been Trintignant rather than Serre, in the final clinch with Romy; and who wouldn’t have wanted that? Yet, if that is so, what does it say about the representation of politics in cinema?