There are all sorts of tantalizing films inside Le Combat Dans L’ile: The story of a marriage tested and questioned, a globe-trotting thriller, a tale of a woman’s dawning political awareness, a snapshot of the turbulence simmering underneath a nation’s jazzy patina. Unfortunately, Alain Cavalier chose to model his 1962 feature debut on the modish eclecticism of “supervisor” Louis Malle, meaning there’s a lot of stylistic nibbling around all of those potential narratives, but precious little of their thematic resonance. The combatants of the title are childhood colleagues on opposite sides of France’s volatile early-‘60s political spectrum. Clemént (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the saturnine son of a Paris industrialist, is working toward his first assassination with an underground reactionary group, while Paul (Henri Serre) is a rugged, mellow lefty running a printing mill in the countryside. Wedged between them is Anne (Romy Schneider), a flirty former actress, Clemént’s long-suffering wife, and, for all allegorical intents and purposes, France itself, torn between contrasting emotions and ideologies. The notion of a domestic diva bobbing between one man’s phallic-fascist bazooka and another’s pacifist letterpress might have tickled other, more inventive members of the Nouvelle Vague, but Cavalier plods through the scenario, employing the country’s Algerian War tensions as background noise for a half-hearted romantic triangle that wavers from chic to risible. (In a picture full of unintentionally comic moments, Schneider’s muted reaction to the rocket launcher in her closet and the two men’s Old West showdown share top honors.) Scarcely a lost Gallic classic, Le Combat Dans L’ile is good-looking, aimless, and entirely circumscribed.
One of the film's chief strengths, Pierre Lhomme's black-and-white cinematography shimmers sharply, with nice contrasts between bustling nocturnal Paris and wintry views of the countryside. The sound is fine, even if the big bazooka explosion comes off as somewhat muffled.
Cavalier's short France 1961 amounts to a 12-minute, handheld panning shot of production stills while the director monologues about the film's background, production, and trio of stars. Other than a limited set of behind-the-scenes photos, the only other extras are a couple of trailers and an essay booklet.
A modest package for a less than explosive French New Wave curio.