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Part political thriller, part love triangle, Le Combat Dans L'Ile (1962) (aka Fire and Ice) is a strong product of the era in which it was made. The political and social unrest that was enveloping France at the time, especially in relation to the war in Algeria, certainly permeates this film, as does the influence of the French New Wave film movement.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and (gorgeous) Romy Schneider play a bourgeois couple whose world is upended when Trintignant joins a right-wing fascist group and attempts a political assassination that is thwarted. As Trintignant tries to find out who betrayed him, his wife starts a relationship with a liberal friend of theirs (Henri Serre). Politically, physically, and emotionally, the two men couldn't be more opposite, and their emotionally violent clashes lead to a final confrontation.
Le Combat Dans L'Ile stands as the first feature film from French director Alain Cavalier, who was 31 at the time and has gone on to a successful movie career in France. His best-known film is probably Therese (1986), which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and took home Best Picture, Director and Screenplay at France's Cesar Awards.
Cavalier is sometimes labeled as one of the last of the French New Wave directors, though prominent historians, like Cahiers du Cinema writer Jean Douchet, consider him more a "contemporary" of the movement. In his book French New Wave, Douchet writes of Cavalier, "He was a complex director from his earliest films, both in terms of his characters and his style, which was highly interiorized. After making several films that were more accessible to the public, but all of which were failures, he took refuge in a cinema that was radically different. Therese is an austere, though highly aesthetic, film that makes few concessions to the audience."
The Weekly Variety review of Le Combat Dans L'Ile from September 1962 was quite positive toward Cavalier: "Fresh, taut direction makes this tale of love and political skullduggery a fetching item... Denotes a new director with a fine narrative sense in Alain Cavalier... Direction takes elliptical short cuts that give it a brisk, tart air... Sharp lensing and dynamic editing."
However, the film didn't receive a commercial release in the United States until 2009. Reviewing it that year in The New York Times, critic A.O. Scott wrote, "The plot wanders with a marvelous, slightly demented freedom from Paris to the countryside, from political thriller to romantic melodrama... [The film] is intriguing and absorbing -- and also, thanks to Pierre Lhomme's silvery and smoky cinematography and the natural gorgeousness of the cast -- beautiful to behold... Romy Schneider was never lovelier and is capable of distracting everyone in the film, and the audience above all, from whatever grave political matters are afoot."
Scott also noted that in hindsight, Trintignant's role could be seen as a precursor to the actor's later, more famous turn in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970): "Mr. Trintignant in effect rehearses, in his native language, the creepy and seductive mixture of sadism and insecurity he would translate into Italian eight years later."
Louis Malle has been variously described as an uncredited producer on this film and as Cavalier's "supervisor." Whatever the official capacity, Malle did lend guidance to his former student and assistant Cavalier.
By Jeremy Arnold