Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Black and White Reality: a Sermon and Review – Alain Cavalier’s Le Combat dans l’Ã®le
While ‘love’ is an overused word, even by yours truly, I must proclaim wholeheartedly:
I LOVE black and white movies.
I’m not saying I prefer black and white to colour, or that it’s superior in any way.
As a matta uh fakt, I shorley dew luvs a great color pitcher as much as the next fella’.
For me, however, black and white photography – when used in movies – forces the deep examination (or at least acknowledgement) of various shades of grey with respect to the political, thematic and/or emotional qualities of the work itself. While it might be argued that my preference for cinema in b/w is purely subjective and relates strictly to preferring the ‘look’, I’d counter that the visual qualities take a back seat to cinematic storytelling elements, which indeed go far deeper than mere surface.
One of my favourite movies of all time is Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, a picture that details the grimy nightlife of New York press agents and gossip columnists. It is a world where Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent, will pimp out a young woman he genuinely likes to a foul-minded sleaze ball who has the power to grant a very special favour; a world where JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a gossip columnist, delights in wielding his power to destroy people just because he can; a world where, in spite of endless acts of dishonesty and cruelty, redemption – even for the most fetid – might be just around the corner.
Finally, there is the character of the city itself – a city seen mostly at night, from dusk to dawn – full of violence, excitement, electricity, deception and despair. It is a city where the gossip columnist Hunsecker, upon witnessing a violent drunken altercation outside a nightclub, literally salutes the swill around him and declares, ‘I love this dirty town’.
Seen through the b/w lens of cinematographer James Wong Howe, the atmosphere of Sweet Smell of Success and its setting – both exhilarating and rank with people and places of the most odious variety – would, if filmed in colour, make a completely different film. It would be as different as the New York of the 1950s was compared to the sadly gussied-up New York of today. The world of Sweet Smell of Success can only exist in monochrome – a world replete with multi-layered emotions, desires and intentions. In a contemporary context, colour is often seen as ‘reality’ whereas anyone consciously choosing b/w is seen as applying a heavy brush of artifice and mediating the vision in some impure, unreal fashion.
If anything, b/w can often reveal a world that is all too real.
As a filmmaker, I always found myself drawn to the properties and magic of b/w. In fact, I still do. God help me for this, but depending on the property, I have, for the past 12 or so years, suggested b/w to many of my filmmakers at Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre. And of the 10 independent films I produced from the late 1980s to mid-1990s, five of them were in b/w (two of which were directed by Guy Maddin). B/W was employed in both Maddin pictures to recreate an earlier cusp-period of cinema, and also because monochrome seemed to be the best way of capturing that dreamlike, hallucinogenic atmosphere the films were deeply rooted in. Surreal, but imbued with logic, or if you will, dream logic (not unlike, say, David Lynch’s Eraserhead).
As the producer of Maddin’s third feature Careful, I was heartbroken to be the arm-twister who had to convince him to shoot in colour rather than b/w. The making of a tough artistic decision (based, alas, on the exigencies of financing) led to a process comprised of pain, rumination, exploration and lovers’ quarrels – intense break-up-then-make-up gymnastics that yielded the important yet delightfully insane post-coital (as it were) idea of shooting in b/w for theatrical release and then using the cheesy early-90s colorisation process for video and television release.
Realising that some colorised b/w classics had a rather quaint aura and were vaguely reminiscent of early two-strip Technicolor is what led to the final decision of shooting with colour stock since the cost of colorisation technology at the time was prohibitive and it wouldn’t have provided firmer control over the final look.
Using a combination of (now-defunct, at least in Canada) AGFA colour stock and Kodak b/w (that would eventually be colour-tinted), Guy created an archaic duo-chromatic mise en scÃ¨ne where each scene would have no more than two dominant colours. This was not only a visually cool approach, but thematically and emotionally it made perfect sense within the context of the George Toles and Maddin-penned tale of repression that explodes in shame, guilt and depravity. In a sense, I still feel that Careful is a b/wmovie, or rather, a black and white picture in colour.
As producer of Bruno Lazaro Pacheco’s experimental feature narrative City of Dark, my obsession with b/w led to importing 16mm b/w Ilford film stock from the UK (16mm in order to run and gun like Godard and his ilk since we had literally hundreds of locations to cover with a tiny documentary-sized crew), getting the footage processed by one of the best b/w 16mm timers in Canada (an amazing old hand at this, Mr Geoff Bottomley, who ran a tiny, grotty little lab in the bowels of the Ryerson University film department in Toronto) and finally, having the elements blown up to 35mm at NYC’s legendary DuArt Laboratory with many of the same technicians who had worked on the b/w timing of Woody Allen’s forays into monochrome. All this was to create a somewhat contemporary, yet vaguely retro dystopian world where dreams are stolen via technology. Again, the literal shades of grey were rendered to allow the viewer to delve even further into the thematic and emotional shades of grey.
In the end, though, all cinematic art involves the application of artifice – hence my guilt-free preference for b/w. The use of black and white might seem more artificial, but ultimately, it is no less ‘real’ than colour.
* * *
I discovered the great Alain Cavalier picture Le Combat dans l’Ã®le (1962) in the days leading up to Dominion Day (sadly renamed Canada Day in the 1980s) – a magnificent celebration instituted by Mother England among Commonwealth nations to celebrate their official status as dominions under the watchful eye of the greatest colonial power in the world.
I viewed Le Combat dans l’Ã®le on high-def in my hideaway on the extreme northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula – a piece of land that was colonised not once, but twice – first, rather benignly by the French and secondly, less benignly by the British. In both cases, the Peninsula’s Native Indians got screwed while everyone else got rich and powerful.
The first colonisation resulted in the Huron Nation helping the French kick Iroquois butt for explorer Samuel D Champlain and institute a fur monopoly. Once the French buggered off, the Huron suffered a mass genocide at the hands of the Iroquois who, not surprisingly, came back for sweet revenge.
The Peninsula was re-populated with the Ojibwe who migrated from the northwestern regions of Upper Canada. They too were eventually fucked over, but this time, by the British, who brought pestilence along with scads of land-gobbling inbred miscreants from the northern reaches of the UK to ‘pioneer’ or tame, if you will, the wild land. The Dominion of Canada is, of course, still a colony of the UK, although it has maximum self-determination, unlike the aboriginal nations before it.
In any event, it seems utterly appropriate for me to have watched the fabulous new Zeitgeist Films DVD release of Le Combat dans l’Ã®le within the context of a colonial celebration in a region endlessly pillaged by the masters of colonisation. This was, after all, a picture made in the waning days of France’s Algerian War when le beau pays was fraught with division regarding its place as a colonial power.
This, of course, was not lost on the filmmakers. Reflecting those turbulent times, director Alain Cavalier crafted an intensely powerful film – passionate, boldly political, charged with violence, rife with betrayal and sexy as all get-out.
And get this – it’s in black and white!
And yes, the shades of grey within the narrative itself begin early on in the proceedings as we’re introduced to Anne (Romy Schneider) and Clément (Jean-Louis Tritignant). Anne is a former actress who has abandoned her artistic calling to fulfil the role of dutiful wife to Clément. Her hedonistic qualities seem unfairly hemmed in by this arrangement and though she appears to love her husband, her happy-go-lucky nature in social situations wavers between innocent and overtly flirtatious.
Clément, clearly smitten with her charms when they’re alone, is less so in public. The magma jealously roiling in his head would be better served if it travelled to the head located in the southerly nether regions below his torso. With Romy Schneider as his wife – a catch if there ever were one – he’s a lucky fella indeed!
Then again, the picture itself is firmly rooted in a neo-noir world where seemingly lucky (or unlucky) guys can never properly see what’s staring them right in the face. This is certainly the deal with rock-headed Clément. He comes from a wealthy family, holds a cushy, work-free position with his Father, a powerful industrialist, and yet, seeks rather pathetically to become ‘political’. He chastises Daddy for kowtowing to Liberal sentiments, leaves the firm and allows himself to be duped by conservative extremists into assassinating a key left-wing political figure.
In spite of all this, Anne is devoted to him. While she leaves Clément after one of his upper-magma-head outbursts, she soon returns to be his loyal sex kitten. When he’s betrayed after a foiled assassination attempt, his mug plastered all over the newspapers and television screens, she turns into his faithful moll and heads on the lam with him.
Things go awry when they shack up with his old chum Paul (Henri Serre), a sensitive lefty who eventually cottons on to Clément’s right-wing terrorist shenanigans. When our not-so-clear-headed hero takes off on an odyssey of revenge, Anne falls in love with Paul, who rekindles her acting career and a belief in a life of gentle compassion. It is, however, just a matter of time before Clément returns and wants Anne back, and given his transformation from a misguided, somewhat inept terrorist into a cold-hearted killer, the proceedings inevitably point to a showdown. And what a showdown it is!
This is, if you haven’t guessed already, one terrific picture!
Given the state of the world at this point in time, Le Combat dans l’Ã®le seems as vibrantly relevant as it must have been upon its first release in 1962. We currently live in a world where America, purporting to be a saviour, is little more than a colonial power – using Band-Aid solutions to pacify its near-Third World domestic conditions and forcing itself upon Muslim nations in order to control their wealth. Equally, we live in a world where young men on the extremist Muslim side, some from desperate straits and others from positions of privilege, are duped into committing acts of violence in the name of God and ultimately, to maintain control of the wealth America seeks to steal from them.
The puppet masters in both cases have everything to gain, while the puppets have everything to lose. And this is why Clément is never fully reprehensible as a character, at least not during the first two-thirds of the picture. Jean-Louis Tritignant’s great performance allows us to empathise with Clément. Through a sexy, tough-as-nails exterior we see a character who thinks he is making active decisions, but is, more often than not, manipulated by those who are quick to take advantage of his need for political fulfilment. In a sense, Clément reminds me of Tom Neal’s hapless, hard-boiled oaf in Edgar Ulmer’s noir classic Detour – so easily seduced, so easily duped, so easily abandoned – and we do feel for him in spite of all his miscalculations and failings.
I love how Cavalier’s script (with dialogue by Jean-Paul Rappeneau) adds very subtle details to Clément’s character, which in turn force Tritignant to engage in the thespian callisthenics of subtle, delicate shading. Perhaps the best example of this is the manner in which Tritignant conveys his relationship to his father and to his family’s money: there’s a sense that what he needs is not acceptance, coddling or an easy ride from his pÃ¨re, but love – pure and simple – a love that might have saved him from the arms of an evil seductress.
That seductress is not a nasty ice-blooded femme fatale as in Detour, where she is played by the late, great Ann Savage (whose final role was as Guy Maddin’s mother Herdis in My Winnipeg). Clément’s temptress in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is something far more insidious – the extreme right wing and its insatiable need for power through colonisation, exploitation and deadly terror tactics.
This is, after all, neo-noir as opposed to film noir – where misplaced idealism more than takes the place of a flesh-and-blood hottie.
If anything, the entity Clément admires most is what brings him down. He seeks acceptance from nobody other than himself – a worthy enough goal, but one that renders him irrevocably and tragically prostate to the whims of New World Order-styled power brokers.
Another fascinating element of Cavalier’s picture is the use of trinity within the narrative structure. This is manifested on a thematic and character level through the numerous triangles that stem from Clément himself. The first involves Clément, his wife Anne and his almost romantic obsession with the Bitch Goddess of the right wing. The second concerns his inability to bond with his father, his intense need to find his way in the world through politicisation of the most reprehensible kind and the fact that, ironically, his father is as much a part of the New World Order as the crackpots Clément is aligned with. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, is the literal love triangle between Clément, Anne and his old childhood pal Paul.
As played by the sensitive, aquiline-featured Henri Serre, Paul is Trintignant’s opposite in every way, and given Anne’s warmth and vibrancy, he becomes the left-wing White Knight (or, if you will, Red Knight) in Shining Armour. Serre, by the way, was certainly no neophyte when it came to love triangles, having played the role of Jim in the ultimate cinematic rendering of the ménage Ã trois, Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – released, incidentally, the same year as Le Combat dans l’Ã®le.
Trinity is, of course, an extremely important element within the context of classical cinema, and Cavalier comes from a great tradition of French filmmakers who dazzled us with their commitment to traditional storytelling form while, at the same time, maintaining clear, individual voices. While Cavalier made this picture during the period of the nouvelle vague he is closer to the spirit of Jean Renoir, HG Clouzot and Jean-Pierre Melville (who delightfully makes a cameo appearance in the picture as un membre de l’organisation) than to the style-over-emotional-substance approach of Jean-Luc Godard.
Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is the work of a great artist who works within a very structured narrative environment – approaching his mise en scÃ¨ne with the assuredness of a master, in spite of the fact that this is his first film. This is especially astounding to me. When it comes to contemporary filmmakers and their debut work, so much emphasis is placed by reviewers on pure (albeit occasional brilliant) visual flourishes, or worse, Christopher ‘One Idea’ Nolan-like trick-pony approaches to rendering drama, that Cavalier’s mature, intelligent and genuinely emotional work in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le makes most of the aforementioned lot look like a playpen full of rank amateurs. Cavalier’s precision and attention to story detail is something that more young filmmakers should emulate, while those who should know better need to bestow fewer accolades upon masturbatory workouts.
And despite the claims of auteuristes and their apologists, movies are not made in a vacuum. With this debut feature, Cavalier was blessed to have as producer and mentor Louis Malle, a great classical filmmaker in his own right for whom Cavalier served previously as an assistant director. In addition to the co-authorship of Jean Paul Rappeneau (who would go on to direct Cyrano and The Horseman on the Roof, contemporary entries in the French classical cinema sweepstakes, though far less dazzling and more workmanlike than the works of Cavalier, Clouzot, Melville, et al), Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is stunningly shot in magnificent black and white by Pierre Lhomme, who went on to shoot, among many others, such classics as Melville’s Army of Shadows, Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts, Someone behind the Door, one of the great French Euro-trash thrillers starring Charles Bronson, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and mon préféré du bonbon pervers du cinéma, Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie.
Cavalier’s most prominent collaborators, however, are his fabulous trio of central performers. Schneider, after many historical roles in form-wrenching period girdles, made her debut in this contemporary story and acquitted herself magnificently as Anne, the woman who acts as a deadly wedge between the two leading male characters. (With this film, Schneider also proves, that the girdles were, except for adherence to historical accuracy in her previous work, completely unnecessary.)
Serre as Anne’s lefty saviour has, without question, never been better (save, perhaps, for Jules et Jim). There is both peace and sadness in his eyes, yet his transformation from a gentle, lonely man to someone infused with both the passion of love and the requisite savagery needed for self-preservation makes him a more-than-perfect male counterpart to Trintignant.
All said and done, however, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who eventually gave an equally stunning performance (in a somewhat similar role) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, continually delivers the unexpected in the role of Clément. One aspect of his performance I have yet to mention is his eventual transformation into a major creep – from an empathetic dupe, he slowly morphs into something that is, frankly, skin-crawlingly malevolent. It’s here where one pines for his character’s redemption even more vigorously than before, all the while sensing futility in such an exercise.
Shades of grey, it would seem, never offer easy solutions or pat feelings. In Le Combat dans l’Ã®le, they offer a rich neo-noir patisserie of the highest order, deliciously, thrillingly and densely layered.
Oh yes, and have I mentioned how great it looks in black and white?
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty: