Le combat dans l'île [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Radiance Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (8th January 2024).
The Film

Clément Lesser (Spotlight on a Murderer's Jean-Louis Trintignant) is an executive at his father's ('s ) factory living a seemingly quaint and comfortable middle-class life with his former actress wife Anne (César and Rosalie's Romy Schneider); however, behind his bland exterior, he is angry and violent. Anne and her father-in-law put up with Clément railing against striking workers, student protests, and immigrants; and Anne may look the other way when she discovers a bazooka hidden in the hall closet. Anne does not realize, however, that the hunting club Clément belongs to is actually a far right extremist militia run by the mysterious Serge (Pierre Asso) planning to seize power back through violence in the name of patriotism. In spite of this shared secrecy, Serge selects Clément alone for a secret mission kept from the others: to assassinate socialist politician Terrasse (Nada's Maurice Garrel). No sooner does Clément fire a bazooka into Terrasse's apartment than Serge reveals that their group has a leak and orders the younger man to go into hiding for a few months until things blow over. Under the impression that Clément must lay low due to a disagreement with the group, Anne insists on going with him when he decides to hide out in the countryside at the farmhouse of childhood friend Paul (Jules and Jim's Henri Serre) who has retreated from society and taken up a small printing press after the death of his wife.

Anne sees a warmer side of her husband come out as he reconnects with his old friend, but their happiness is cut short when they learn from a radio report that Terrasse has survived the assassination attempt, having been warned by the very man who put Clément up to the job. Covertly returning to Paris, they discover Clément's face splashed across the newspapers. Anne's father-in-law assures her that because no one was actually killed, Clément will get a speedy trial and only have to spend a few years behind bars. Anne urges her husband to take the offer, but Clément is determined to take revenge on Serge – having found him guilty in a mock trial with the other members of his party – and a disgusted Paul gives his former friend just enough time to arrange to get out of the country in search of Serge but is forced to take in Anne when she falls ill and collapses. During her long recovery, Anne makes friends with Paul's young housekeeper Cécile (A Tale of Winter's Diane Lepvrier) who is in awe of her metropolitan sophistication, but it is Paul who reluctantly starts to fall for Anne as she lets her guard slip. As the two grow closer, Paul encourages Anne to get back into acting, even moving back to Paris with her, taking a job at a printer and endeavoring to get a production of the play his wife wrote before she died with Anne in the lead… and then Clément comes back.

The feature debut of director Alain Cavalier (Thérèse), Le combat dans l'île was quite a distinct work from those of his nouvelle vague contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard and Éric Rohmer on the avante garde end or François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol on the more literary side; and yet, it feels like an accomplised and fully-mature work whose influence can be seen in films as dissimilar as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist and Andrzej Zulawski's That Most Important Thing: Love. While Trintignant's protagonist in the Bertolucci film attempts to become the model fascist to mask his feelings of otherness, Clément is unequivocally the film's villain, a veteran of the Algerian war and as resentful of President Charles de Gaulle's decision to accept the country's independence as he is at his father's and brothers' decision to negotiate with their striking workers. He feels propped up by belonging to a secret group but really just a bully who needs his friends to hold Paul while he beats him in an impotent rage at Paul's defiant pacifism and attaches power to guns, particularly a pair of Walther P38s. For a moment, there seems to be a spark of humanity in him as he accepts that Anne no longer loves him; but then he treats Paul's relationship with his wife as the greater betrayal ("How old are you? 12?" is Paul's response when Clément challenges him to a duel). Paul at first seems like a hermit who simply does not want to get involved, but he reveals once confronted with the truth about his childhood friend his disgust with those who use violence ("You might think you'll bring us to heel, but you'll never get us. I don't want violence, but if you look for it, I will retaliate"). Despite the conflict eventually transpiring between the two men with diametrically-opposed worldviews, the latter half of the film actually puts Anne at center stage as she comes back to life in gentler, liberating surroundings and recovers a part of herself in contrast to Schneider's later turn in the Zulawski film which put the actress and her character on a pedestal while emphasizing the noble acts of the man in love with her and the suffering of her husband.

The film is slicky-photographed by Pierre Lhomme (Camille Claudel) in a manner more akin to noir than New Wave even on the Paris streets, with a seeming bit of cinema verité in the grainy, handheld, quick-cutting reportage coverage of the riots in which Terrasse is injured ultimately revealed to be a newsreel being watched by Clément and Anne in the cinema rather than a didactic interjection. While the film does deal with social matters contemporary to the time of production, and French viewers would have been in the know and foreign audiences might benefit from a bit of context, Cavalier deliberately refuses to give the extremists the dignity of explicitly outlining their grievances, most satisfyingly in a scene in which Clément seems as unable to express it to Paul as the other man seems not to actually care when he asks why. Apart from a few more features like the companion piece L'insoumis, the Richard Stark adaptation crime film Mise à sac, the interracial domestic drama Martin et Léa, the more conventional-sounding Catherine Denueve vehicle Heartbeat, and the machismo-deconstructing road movie Le plein de super, Cavalier mainly worked in television documentaries and film shorts before taking up the digital video camera later in life and helming a series of DIY features starting with the Cannes- and César Awards-nomiated Pater in 2011 and continuing to this day.


Released directly to television stateside in a English-dubbed version that has since gone AWOL, Le combat dans l'île was unavailable in English-friendly form until 2004 in the U.K. with a DVD and 2009 in the U.S. with arthouse screenings with a DVD release the following year from Zeitgeist Films, and then after that in France as a two-disc set with the 1993 Cavalier film Libera me.

The film was remastered in 2K by Gaumont in France who released the film on Blu-ray in 2020, and it is this master that is the source from Radiance Films' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen US/UK dual-territory Region A/B-coded Blu-ray edition. The opening credits opticals are as grainy as expected, and the opening shots in a darkened car interior have that somewhat rough New Wave look, but with the subsequent shots in the lamp-lit streets, bright drugstores, streetlight-lit and apartment interiors, the film adopts a noir slickness with inky blacks, and a greater range of grays than whites (due as much to the overcast settings as wardrobe choices). Resolution takes a slight dip during the riot sequence, but this is revealed to be deliberate once the footage is revealed to be an actual partially-dramatized newsreel being watched rather than just excerpted stock footage.


The sole audio option is a 24-bit LPCM 2.0 mono French track. It has been cleaned up as part of the restoration, but the entire film had to be post-dubbed anyway due to the older, noisier Éclair Cameflex turret lens 35mm reportage camera used for the film. The optional English subtitles are free of any casually noticeable errors.


Extras start off with a trio of archival Cavalier interviews, starting with a 1962 interview (4:51) for television in which he discusses his influences in American cinema, feeling like serving as assistant director for Louis Malle on Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers were actually his first two films because of their close partnership, and learning from the actors on his actual feature debut (on which Malle was credited as the film's supervising producer). He also describes the film as a love story with the political element providing the source of conflict between the men; indeed in "France 1961" (13:15) – ported from the U.S. DVD – he describes Austrian Schneider as representing France and the politically-opposed men as expressing different ways of "loving" their country. In the same piece – apparently shot by himself as he pans the camera over a series of still photographs laid out on his desk – he also discusses his cinematic influences from Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson to American noir, the cast, some of the film's themes and then-current topics, and the shoot. From the French DVD comes "Playing Dead" (4:46) which is more of a selected scenes commentary in which he equates killing characters in film with real life which might seem pretentious on the surface but causes one to think about the gravity of literally killing off a character and figuratively the actor playing them.

Also included is a television interview with actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (7:36) from 1983 in which he speaks of the film as his first true leading role, mentioning his earlier stage and film work, becoming a photographer and not wanting to act again after feeling "demoralised" by his experiences in the Algerian war, and being lured back into it with a production of "Hamlet" via a year of casual rehearsals. He also reveals that he was offered the Paul character but chose Clément as he does not mind playing an evil character if the overall film reflects his beliefs.

Ported from the French Blu-ray is "The Succulence of Fruit" (37:29), an interview with critic Philippe Roger who discusses the dual influences on Cavalier of Bresson – who allowed Cavalier to observe one of his shoots while he was in film school – and Jean Grémillon, and how Cavalier's own painterly filmic style relates. Of the film, he notes that Cavalier wanted Schneider to act without make-up but she refused, and he soon found himself intrigued by her evolving "mask" of femininity in contrast to the film's masculine masks.

The disc closes with Cavalier's 1958 short film "Un américain" (16:38), a small gallery, and the film's theatrical trailer (3:22).


The standard edition comes with a reversible cover while the first pressing of three thousand copies is is presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings, and includes a limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Ben Sachs who discusses the film in the context of the French New Wave and genre filmmaking – along with Cavalier's later digital video films – and scholar and author of "Late-Colonial French Cinema" Mani Sharpe looks at the film and its political dimension, particularly the far right violence of the OAS in both Algeria and France at the time.


Whether the viewer takes Le combat dans l'ile as a political thriller or as a domestic drama with overt social and political elements, Alain Cavalier's film is an assured debut with far-reaching influences that may be recognized by cinéastes who have never seen the film.


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