Le combat dans L’île

by Glenn Erickson Nov 18, 2023

‘The Fight on the Island’  Nine years before Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Jean-Louis Trintignant played another right-wing zealot dispatched on a murder mission. Filmed in Paris and Normandy, Alain Cavalier’s gem of a thriller depicts anti-democratic militant terror subversives in action in France, at the same time that the notorious OAS was active. Romy Schneider takes an early ‘adult’ role, alongside Henri Serre of Jules and Jim; the unusual storyline is a different kind of love triangle, a believable portrait of a woman married to an upscale assassin.

Le combat dans L’île
1962 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 104 min. / Street Date November 28, 2023 / Available from MVD Shop / 39.95
Starring: Romy Schneider, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Henri Serre, Diane Lepvrier, Pierre Asso, Maurice Garrel, Jacques Berlioz.
Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Production Designer: Bernard Evein
Film Editor: Pierre Gillette
Original Music: Serge Nigg
Written Screenplay by Alan Cavalier, Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Produced by Louis Malle, Jean-François Malle
Directed by
Alain Cavalier

The French New Wave isn’t just Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut — this absorbing thriller is from Alain Cavalier, a writer-director who assisted the great Louis Malle on his first two features, Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers. In a gesture of creative solidarity, Malle produced Cavalier’s excellent first feature Le combat dans L’île (‘The Fight on the Island’). Cavalier’s picture apparently wasn’t given an American release when new. That didn’t happen until 2009, when it was restored. It is still known only by its original foreign title.

The story unfolds a bit like a classic French noir. The outline of the drama comes together through character details — and a few bits of direct narration. Clément Lesser (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a part-heir to a manufacturing dynasty, but wants little to do with the union negotiations being run by his father (Jacques Berlioz). He instead devotes his spare time to working with the secretive Serge (Pierre Asso), an older man (perhaps a retired General?) who keeps his conversations short and cryptic. This undisclosed business with Serge bothers Clément’s young wife Anne (Romy Schneider), as do Clément’s selfish attempts to control her. He slaps her around when he’s angry. He declines to explain the ‘special equipment’ she finds hidden in their apartment — a military bazooka.

Avoiding specifics, the film’s events include a political assassination, a personal betrayal and a flight from the law that takes the couple from the city to the country. Clément takes shelter with Paul (Henri Serre), his ‘blood brother’ from his youth. The personal and the political become inseparable, as changing loyalties bring events to a violent conclusion.


The modest but smartly-assembled thriller can boast two big stars early in their careers. Jean-Louis Trintignant had broken through in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman and by this time had appeared in pictures by Valerio Zurlini and  Georges Franju. Mainstream America probably didn’t discover him until Claude LeLouch’s A Man and a Woman. But his very next picture, Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso, cemented Trintignant’s fame in Europe.

The Austrian-born Romy Schneider, one of Europe’s most arrestingly beautiful and vivacious actresses ever, was the film’s biggest name. She was still best known for her German “Sissi” films, as a rosy-cheeked teenager. Her roles in Combat and the Luchino Visconti segment of Boccaccio ’70 arrived in the same year, placing Schneider in a much more adult context. The rest of the sixties then exploded for her, in films directed by Orson Welles,  Otto Preminger,  Clive Donner and  Jules Dassin.

The unusually adult Le combat dans L’île is not a standard ‘spies and dolls’ action melodrama, even if we see scenes alluding to the working arrangement of a paramilitary conspiracy. Clément and Anne’s marriage functions in fits and starts, with the wife rebelling against a possessive husband who flies into rages when she becomes friendly with other men. The anger beneath Clément’s kind and loving surface becomes more clear when we see him in his secret element as part of a subversive militia dedicated to the murder of traitors and communists.


Yet director Cavalier’s thesis doesn’t push a leftist polemic. At one point Clément purchases leather gloves. The focus on character is so complete that close-ups of a gloved fist don’t immediately connect with Fascist iconography. We instead concentrate on Clément’s unemotional commitment to his politics. The film’s emotional center is the progress of the scattered, unhappy Anne as she re-establishes her sense of identity and purpose.

Was the film’s overt political context welcome in France of1962?  Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows had a streak of the same anti-colonial sentiment, as its murder plot involved an ex-commando and an international arms dealer. The main character in Combat appears to have been an ex-soldier, and now an operative for a right-wing terrorist militia. The unnamed group might as well be a splinter of the historical OAS (Organisation armée secrète), a conspiracy of rebel Generals determined to keep France in Algeria by force. Before being put down, they even tried to assassinate Charles De Gaulle, a plot dramatized in Fred Zinnemann’s superior thriller Day of the Jackal.

The French New Wave filmmakers are now remembered as activists that took a leftist stand in the May 68 ‘civil unrest’ that affected several world capitals. Their grand gesture was to shut down a film festival. We also think of Jean-Luc Godard as the most radical of the group. But at the time of the New Wave breakthrough, Godard’s politics re: France’s colonial status were reportedly far more conservative, and in agreement with the OAS.


Once again, an oppressive political personality cannot be separated from the psychology of his sex relations. Clément Lesser keeps his ‘good little woman’ unaware of his activities mainly because he considers it none of her business. He doesn’t like her to have too much independence. He demanded that his wife quit her job as an actress, but only when they go on the run does she discover his entire secret life. Anne covers for Clément and follows him into fugitive exile, letting herself be defined by a man who hides weapons in their apartment and secretly plots acts of terror.

We’re also impressed by the story’s smooth introduction of Clément’s romantic rival. Henri Serre’s Paul is an easygoing, uncomplicated guy considerate of those around him. He’s a job printer, and one of his clients publishes pro-Union leaflets. Paul has admirable ethics — he lives with a teenaged housekeeper (Diane Lepvrier) but would never think of taking sexual advantage. Paul encourages Anne to resume her stage career, for her own development and sense of worth. Paul is clearly Clément’s schematic opposite, but the fine direction and performances prevent the romantic triangle from playing like a rigged deck.

With his revolutionary ambitions ruined, Clément’s hate has to go somewhere. As befitting a military traditionalist with rigid notions of masculine honor, he channels it into Paul’s betrayal of their adolescent blood-brother pact, and insists on the one-on-one ‘combat’ of the final reel. The strange shoot-out takes place on a narrow island in a river near Paul’s house next to a picturesque old mill. It’s less a political battle than a struggle between positive and negative images of France. If there’s a message here, it’s that Nationalist Pride is a dead end.


In 1961 French moviemakers had to avoid subject matter that put the country’s institutions (especially its military) in a a negative light. That makes the scenes of the conservative militants in training, disguised as a hunting club, all the more disturbing. Sixty years later, such anti-democratic conspiracies are the norm everywhere, all over the world. Remember the battalion of extra-legal militants in Alfonso Cuarón’s  Roma, training in the Mexican desert?  Nobody believes in the possibility of civil consensus — these are visions of the world breaking down into tribal barbarism.

Le combat dans L’île has a terrific visual appearance. The urban scenes are filmed in slightly contrasty B&W. The streets of Paris are stunning, and the Normandy woods more inviting in the soft French light. Cavalier’s direction has a New Wave feel only in its clipped continuity — it jumps to new scenes without full transitions, and pauses for little tableaux for their own sake. At several points a narrator drops in from nowhere to explain the outlaw status of Clément and Serge, or their victim, a pro-Union politician (Maurice Garrel). But much of the story is told in free-flowing vignettes without a lot of expository setup. Anne runs away from Clément, and all we see of her is a scene in a bus, playing with a small child — a relative’s?  A stranger’s?  Without the usual dialogue preachments, Alain Cavalier makes Paul and Anne a life-affirming couple, leaving Clément on his own to embrace cold notions of honor.



Radiance’s Blu-ray of Le combat dans L’île is a perfect rendering of this B&W gem of a thriller, so well directed by Alain Cavalier. Pierre Lhomme’s images often resemble fine still photography. The music of Serge Nigg is an excellent counterpoint to the action on screen. We learn that the entire picture’s dialogue was post-dubbed, because Lhomme’s camera available fmade so much noise, they couldn’t hear the actors talk. The dubbing is excellent but there is no surface ambience — things like footsteps stick out in an audio vacuum. It’s one of those movies in which we become accustomed to everyone being ‘on mike’ at all times.

Once again Radiance lays out a selection of extras to equal Criterion. We hear from Alain Cavalier, speaking well about his picture in a 1962 TV interview, and then again in two looking-back short subjects made 50 years later. Cavalier describes Romy Schneider as ‘an Austrian confection.’ In the film itself, Cavalier can be seen reflected in a car window, when Clément and Serge are stalking the opposition politician in his car.

Jean-Louis Trintignat’s 1983 interview is candid and pleasant. He says that by the time of this picture he was just feeling comfortable about this acting. He explains that Romy Schneider seemed insecure and unhappy everywhere but behind a camera, which explains the lack of interviews with the actress. Critic Philippe Roger offers an interesting analysis of the picture, especially when describing director Cavalier’s unique style.


In addition to the original trailer, Radiance offers Alain Cavalier’s first short subject, also shot by Pierre Lhomme. L’Américain is a character piece about a young American sculptor (Jean Brasseur) who looks like James Dean. Bumming around trying to work and feeling lonely, hee eventually squeaks by hawking New York newspapers to other expatriates (was Godard watching this for Breathless?). The sculptor also finds a girlfriend, played by the director’s wife Denise de Casabianca, who also edited.

The insert booklet contains Ben Sachs’ overview essay, Mani Sharpe’s concise notes on the political context of Combat, and a very nice remembrance by Pierre Lhomme of the small group of film fantatics with whom he congregated. In the late 1950s, all of them helped each other to make 16mm short films. Lhomme’s assessment of the Nouvelle Vague is free of myth-making. He lists at least 15 directors not usually associated with the movement, because they didn’t start as magazine critics.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Le combat dans L’île
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Cinema Page French TV interview with Alain Cavalier (1962, 5 mins)
Faire la mort: A commentary featurette by Cavalier (2011, 5 mins)
Interview with star Jean-Louis Trintignant from the Belgian television show Cinescope (1983, 7 mins)
Critical discourse The Succulence of Fruit with Philippe Roger (2020, 37 mins)
Alain Cavalier’s short film L’Américain (1958, 17 mins)
Short film by Alain Cavalier France 1961, released with Zeitgeist’s 2010 DVD (13 mins)
Ten behind-the-scenes photos
Limited edition booklet (26 pages) featuring essayd by Ben Sachs, Mani Sharpe and Pierre Lhomme.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
November 17, 2023

Visit CineSavant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:

Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

3.7 3 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Romy Schneider’s small role in “The Victors” should also be remembered.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x