In the early ’60s, France was undergoing the painful transformation from colonial power to liberal democracy. Engaged in its own ‘Dirty War’ in Algeria, France’s former colony eventually slipped away. That led to an alarming rise in fascist activity, including an assassination attempt on President Charles de Gaulle.
Very much a product of its time, the 1961 political thriller Le Combat dans l’ile (“The Combat on the Island”) is the story of the reactionary Clement (Jean-Louis Trintignant), his beautiful wife Anne (Romy Schneider), and his leftist friend Paul (Henri Serre).
As the film begins, we learn that Clement, the son of a wealthy industrialist, has no interest in the family business and begins training as an assassin for an underground fascist cell. Anne is a free-spirited libertine, a former actress who loves the club scene. As Clement drives Anne home from a party, the tension between them is clear:
Clement: Who was that guy you spoke to after dinner?
Anne: I don’t know, he was very nice.
Clement: You behaved like a slut. Everyone was looking.
Anne: I’m glad they were. They were all bored.
When they arrive home, Clement smacks her, Anne pushes him away, he pursues her and they make passionate love. There’s a strange erotic dynamic at play here, and one is reminded of Sylvia Plath’s verse: “Every woman adores a Fascist, the boot in the face, the brute, brute heart of a brute like you”.
Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance as Clement is icy and aloof, his motives unclear. However, the film suggests something important: the fascist impulse is closely related to the Freudian id and unrestrained ego. Clement loves his wife, but it’s a possessive, selfish love. At every turn he tries to stifle the vivacious Anne.
The next day Anne becomes frightened when she opens an unmarked box and finds a disassembled rocket launcher. The weapon is soon put to use as Clement tries to assassinate a left-wing politician. After Clement is betrayed by his handler, the couple flees Paris and takes refuge in a country house owned by Paul, a friend who is unaware of Clement’s political extremism.
This exile becomes a brief, idyllic return to Eden as the two men reminisce about their childhood and rekindle their friendship. Anne befriends Paul’s housekeeper Cecile, and the two young women take to canoeing on lazy summer afternoons.
Romy Schneider is radiantly beautiful as Anne, and the film springs to life whenever she’s on camera. Director Alain Cavalier intuitively knows this—whenever the plot begins to drag he cuts to Anne, as she tosses flowers at her fascist husband or when she gets drunk while yachting down the Seine. Pierre Lhomme’s crisp black and white cinematography elevates Schneider to icon status. “She is the film’s desire, its soul, its body,” Cavalier says.
When Clement travels to South America to assassinate his handler, Anne has a fling with the leftist Paul, and we now have a deadly love triangle fraught with allegorical tension. According to Cavalier, “Anne is France and two men will fight over her—one right-wing, one left-wing… one warlike, the other peaceful. Clement wants to uphold order… order in France, order between bosses and workers, order between the great powers and the poor, penniless countries.”
Clement returns home and discovers that Anne is pregnant with Paul’s child. Another symptom of the fascist persona is the paranoid obsession with betrayal, and here the personal represents the political. Clement is too much of a narcissist to realize that his own brutality has ruined his marriage. Thus Anne (France) turns away from fascism.
Yet there’s something too neatly pat about all of this and one wonders why the charismatic Anne would settle for either of these two men.Clement is obviously a psychopath. Paul is a dour moralist who disapproves when Anne and Cecile go yachting with a wealthy couple. By choosing Paul, Anne is trading in one straitjacket for another. With the additional obligations of motherhood, one can safely predict future misery for Anne.
The film’s climax is somewhat contrived, as Clement and Paul face off, pistols drawn on an island that was once their boyhood playground. A revelatory flashback might have worked here, but Cavalier plays it straight and by the time the credits roll, the murderous Clement still remains unfathomable.
“All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun,” Godard once said. Yet in Le Combat dans l’ile the girl is much more interesting than the gun and the film’s resolution is shaky, at best. The DVD’s extras include Cavalier’s documentary France 1961, a brief but fascinating look at the making of the film and its historical backdrop.