Alain Cavalier’s debut bears little resemblance to the work of his mentor Louis Malle and feels utterly indifferent to the iconoclastic, postmodernist mischief of his contemporaries riding the crest of the nouvelle vague, yet in its own way Le combat dans l’ile (1961) couldn’t be more of its time. Concerning a love triangle between a militant conservative, a left-wing pacifist, and an innocent outsider gradually gaining awareness of her adopted country’s aggressive divisions, the movie uses an old-fashioned narrative device to explore events unfolding during the very moment of its filming. The re-surfacing of Le combat, culminating in Zeitgeist’s new DVD, is a testament to how often genuine universality is best earned through specificity. It’s rather difficult not to draw loose parallels between Cavalier’s portrait of France in 1961 and numerous civil wars being fought today, conflicts sometimes mistaken for being a problem exclusive to the Islamic world.
Clément (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the son of a wealthy industrialist, joins an underground group planning terrorist actions in response to Algerian independence. His Austrian-born wife Anne (Romy Schneider), a former actress, seems content to seek out the fleeting pleasures and numb herself with sleeping pills. She barely raises an eyebrow when her housekeeper finds a bazooka hiding in the closet, but Clément’s physical and emotional abuse proves too much. She leaves him, only to come back on the very night Clément is to use that bazooka. The assassination attempt goes awry and Clément’s forced into hiding. This is really just the beginning of a story riddled with strange twists. Among the many distinguishing qualities of Le combat dans l’ile is its resistance to establishing a single protagonist. As Clément sinks deeper into a marginal political existence Anne moves toward the story’s centre. Yet a third character, Clément’s childhood friend Paul (Henri Serre), becomes increasingly entangled in the couple’s affairs, until he too begins to occupy the narrative core.
Trintignant’s particular, seductive coldness, an unusual quality in a star, one shared by his American contemporary John Cassavetes, allows him to dominate the frame whenever present and then slip away inconspicuously. Schneider has perhaps the most precarious role, the object of desire whose own desires seem neglected by Cavalier’s allegorical scheme, yet her ability to convey Anne’s insistence on chasing romance and living in the moment clouds our doubts about her motives. Serre makes less of an impression, perhaps because Paul’s politics are less defined than Clément’s and his pacifism reads as ultimately ineffectual. Of course, Serre would soon go on to portray one-third of one of cinema’s most memorable ménage à trois in Jules et Jim (62). Working with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who would go on to shoot with Bresson, Melville and Jean Eustache, Cavalier makes wonderful use of his central performances, elegantly emphasizing details such as Clément’s ceremonial donning of gloves, while tempering the more dramatic moments with a judicious use of scoring, silence, and dialogue that bleeds from one scene to the next. His was an auspicious start, thought it’s difficult to say how well he followed it up since much of his body of work remains obscure.