The Fire Within Review

Louis Malle’s film about an alcoholic facing his own plans of suicide has been released in a stellar edition from Criterion. The disc is reviewed here by clydefro.

Though the thread of alcoholism runs directly through Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (Le feu follet), its main theme is the more universal feeling of sadness. Not depression or anxiety, not something that comes and goes, but the pervasive refusal to indefinitely weigh life’s lightness and darkness against each other. For the film’s protagonist Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet), only unhappiness exists and to act otherwise requires a draining, unbearable lack of sincerity. Alain has tried. His reliance on alcohol became consuming, presumably destroying his marriage while in New York and leading to his stay at a Versailles clinic to cure himself of the addiction. Four months in and he’s retained sobriety, but it’s become too much to bear. The viewer slowly pieces together his plan to kill himself on the 23rd of July, a date written and circled on the mirror in Alain’s room. The Fire Within details what Alain does on the 22nd, as he visits his former life in Paris. Throughout, Malle never assures his audience whether the threat of death is merely a bluff or a determined necessity.

It was with this film that Louis Malle asserted himself as a true artistic force. No longer just a privileged young man who’d served as Bresson’s assistant on A Man Escaped and co-directed Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World before setting out on his own to make Elevator to the Gallows when he was only 24 years old, Malle had reached a crossroads. Following a series of well-made, varyingly successful films, the director, now 30, was staring at his own form of uncertainty and mild depression. His attempts to translate these feelings into a screenplay, with the added dagger of a friend’s recent suicide, were to coincide with the discovery of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le feu follet, based on the self-inflicted death of surrealist writer Jacques Rigaut. Thus, Malle’s film version can be seen as a culmination of his personal uncertainties about adulthood, as well as the actual suicides of his friend, Rigaut, and Drieu, who had ended his own life in 1945.

Indeed, while the act of suicide, that harshest of finalities amid a world so obsessed with immediacy, may hang over the entirety of The Fire Within, Malle advances his narrative by keeping in mind the more peripheral aspects of life versus death. Our first encounter with Alain is a morning after in a hotel with his estranged wife’s friend Lydia. Even here Alain is deeply unsure and sexually neurotic. His confidence is completely absent, rendering him apologetic for apparent impotence from the previous night. Lydia tries to reassure him, but Alain maintains an uncertainty towards female relationships that will crop up repeatedly in the film’s single day period. Malle essentially inserts everything the viewer needs to know about Alain in this initial scene, though that’s hardly a slight to Ronet’s performance. The actor’s ability to maintain this level of internal anguish is astounding. Those only familiar with his work in Elevator to the Gallows will be amazed at how firmly embedded Ronet becomes in his characterisation here. His eyes look deadened and defeated. His soul is visibly lost. Separating actor from character in this film is impossible, unthinkable even.

Not only does Ronet carry the film, appearing in nearly every scene, he does so without the aid of much conversational dialogue. Perhaps the most hypnotically affecting sequence is a largely silent interlude early on when Alain is pacing around his room at the clinic. A morbid news story is cut out and tucked into his mirror, joining others of its kind including newspaper pictures from the then-recent death of Marilyn Monroe. He’s clearly drawn to the pain of others, searching for someone who’ll understand his own hurt. A gun becomes an object of fetish, its cold metal representing the ultimate release from one hell and possibly to another. But Ronet draws the viewer in entirely. He plays this debilitating sadness internally. There’s no need to resort to mopey behaviour or dragging around lost emotion. It’s to the film’s considerable credit that these crutches are avoided. The point of no return in terms of suicidal action is resisted. Alain always has the choice of the barrel or the bottle and his decision is absolutely never assured.

Malle’s extreme objectivity, perhaps solidified with this film, is the quality with which his legacy should be assured among those constantly searching for some ridiculous auteur stamp. The director’s bravery in choices across his career, including the nonjudgmental exploration of topics as misunderstood as adultery, suicide, incest, and irreconcilable evil, seems resolutely triumphant. His refusal to lace these particular subjects with cynicism or opinion must be the entire point of their focus. Otherwise, why delve into mankind’s extreme dark side absent an agenda? Malle often takes a critical beating in comparison to his Left Bank contemporaries, but it’s a tiresome complaint. His films show more warmth and attempts to understand the troubled souls he embraced than the entirety of those beloved rivals. At some point, the idea of total immersion into the world of the unsaintly pariah must, without question, be examined itself as a form of resistance to the shortsighted notion of signatures and filmic constraints.

The Fire Within may even be Malle’s masterpiece. Few films with any position in the fringe of the mainstream can lay claim to exposing and trying to understand that utter, depressive sadness that Ronet’s protagonist suffers. The idea of an adult life hardly worth living seems antithetical to the entire perception of the motion picture. Yet, Malle takes us on this journey of defeat and does so in a straightforward manner. Alain is prematurely done with life. He treks to Paris, possibly to make amends and possibly to seek some undefined sense of support, and encounters the bartender at his former hotel and place of residence. Alain is treated with legendary status. A celebrity enclosed in four walls. The journey continues when he visits a former best friend, now entrenched in family life with a spouse and three kids not his own, but Alain is silently repulsed. The youthful determinations they’d once rallied around have been exposed as empty opinions. He confidentially shares the 23rd of July plan, but isn’t taken seriously. Or perhaps it’s just not seen as very important. Either way, Alain moves on to an ambiguous former acquaintance played by Jeanne Moreau. We see in Moreau’s character Malle’s own objective and courageous empathy, but she’s a difficult one to grasp, having taken refuge in a drug den. Unable to really satisfy his odd intentions, Alain quickly finds himself at a well-to-do dinner party.

Alcohol reappears, first leaving him in a near-toxic state and ultimately treading the line between strengthening and weakening the character in venom-filled rebukes against the elitist upper crust types of his socialising past. It seems that he’s grown to hate everything he once tolerated, and is now no longer capable of staying silent. By throwing his protagonist into the fire he’s rejected, Malle diverts the viewer’s attention from Alain’s struggle and into his mindset. Ronet does such an incredible job of endearing the character to the audience that these scenes at the dinner party serve more as confirmation of Alain’s disenchantment than any motivations he might have in his planned final act. He may be obnoxious, but the behaviour of the other guests is far more offensive. The argument of whether this microcosmic event could possibly support suicide is a valid one, but it misses the point of Alain’s condition. These are the only people he knows. These are his ideal, his strived-for epitome of personal success. The rejection of his peers is the rejection of himself.

Meanwhile, Malle never raises any concern over the questions that many will bring to his film. Why doesn’t Alain just get a regular job? Why doesn’t he strive for a more humble life? Why not join the zombie club? The quick answer is easy – he can’t possibly relate to this class of people and he has zero desire to denigrate his own status to the servant-like position occupied by those unconcerned with upping their own social standing. It’s not even a rejection of those beneath him in class. This is the tract Alain firmly occupies. He knows just one speed in life and it’s not serving others. Malle’s own position is undeniably similar, but these aren’t choices one makes. They’re what a person is born into or how they’re educated and formed. It’s a divide that surely separates, but it seems unfair to begrudge Malle these particular details.

(spoilers ahead)

Malle’s film is, at its most basic point, an unsettling account of unassisted suicide. Alain’s fate, no matter how temptingly predetermined it may seem, remains uncertain until the very last image. The will he or won’t he predicament feels unresolved throughout the film, leaving the final audible shot as a devastating loss to the viewer as much or more so than to Alain’s own friends and acquaintances. Though there’s little reason to believe that Alain will spare himself, experience has incorrectly taught us that films do not usually end this way. But Malle can hardly spare his viewer or his character. Happy resolutions may not be necessary, but ones this dark are hardly expected. From a cinematic point of view, it’s almost unthinkable to consider just how dark The Fire Within really seems to be. Certainly, those looking for smiles are misguided, and there may not be anything comforting at all for the majority of viewers. Yet, one could also argue that the entire film is warmly reassuring.

Though it immediately lets the viewer know we’re looking at a serious examination of personal catastrophe, it’s important to keep in mind that Alain Leroy is hardly an isolated case. Suicides are undeniable facts of life, often planned in advance like Leroy’s. Malle doesn’t glamourise the act, but he does explore it with courageous humanity. Look around and you’ll find the word “morose” applied to The Fire Within with alarming frequency. No, don’t believe it. Think for yourself and examine how Malle actually embraces Alain, tries to understand him and provides a platform for the sadness of the character as well as those myriad souls who relate to him. You don’t have to be suicidal or an alcoholic to develop a deep kinship to Alain. Some people simply struggle to carry on with the daily masquerade of the manufactured life. Alain Leroy and The Fire Within partly exist for those malcontents. It’s not a pro-suicide movie so much as it is one that deconstructs the rationale behind the act.

That doesn’t make the film’s utter finality any less devastating. We expect something we never get. After Alain’s self-inflicted blast, hindsight clarifies that this is really the film’s true and only ending. Anything else would feel forced and artificial. Yet, his heart has also become our collective heart. By maintaining Alain’s consistent wishes, we’re left with a hollow, empty feeling, one intensified as a result of Malle’s warm eye. Expected or not, Alain’s apparent death could not burn more, and the film’s insistence on conveying some sense of an understanding of the character further enables that hurt. It becomes a resounding loss, delivered directly to the audience. This may be the only fitting conclusion, but it rattles us just the same.

The Disc

The Fire Within was previously released alongside three of the director’s other feature films in Optimum’s R2 Louis Malle Collection Vol. 1, but it’s new to R1. The Criterion Collection’s dual-layered DVD provides a 1.66:1 progressive transfer, enhanced for widescreen televisions, that looks similar, if slightly better, than what’s found in the Optimum set. Criterion’s usual commitment is here in spades. The image is quite impressive, with some stunning examples of black and white contrast that rival the label’s best efforts. Grain is visible, but takes on a natural look and seems to belong in the picture. The detail is mostly excellent, consistent, and strong. If there’s any complaint to be made, it would be some brief, but noticeable shimmering found especially early on in the film. A remarkably superb transfer otherwise, though.

The limitations of the French Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track are obvious and cause no need for alarm. Audio is easily heard, without unwanted distractions. Erik Satie’s blissful light piano score sounds acceptably clean and dialogue is equally fine. There’s nothing overly impressive here, but original audio is always the ideal preference and it’s presented absent any significant issues. English subtitles are optional and white in colour.

Though it’s priced in Criterion’s lower tier, this release is nicely outfitted with relevant and informative, if somewhat repetitive, supplements. An interview (20:38) conducted with Louis Malle in September of 1994, just 14 months before his untimely death, is perhaps the main attraction because it allows the director to discuss his work with the benefit of decades of consideration. The Fire Within was obviously a deeply personal and meaningful film for Malle and these extra features echo over and over how much importance he placed on its success. Another odd detail that comes up more than once is Malle’s seeming hesitancy with the casting of Maurice Ronet both before, during, and after the film was shot. The finished product hardly supports these concerns and you have to wonder if it wasn’t a case where Malle was almost too attached to his own ideal, unable to recognise how well Ronet fit the part. Even watching the actor in a short interview (5:59) conducted in 1964, he still seems like someone very near Alain Leroy and there are comments littered among these features that indicate Ronet and his character weren’t that far apart.

More discussion in regards to Malle and Ronet and various aspects of production can be found in “Malle’s Fire Within” (27:13), a piece done exclusively by Criterion for this disc. It features interviews with Alexandra Stewart, who plays Solange in the film and with whom Malle later had a child, as well as assistant directors Philippe Collin and Volker Schlöndorff. Additional insight is provided in the 2005 documentary short Jusqu’au 23 juillet (28:47), with appreciation from actor Mathieu Amalric, writer Didier Daeninckx, and Cannes festival curator Pierre-Henri Deleau. Amalric, in particular, expresses a deep affection for Malle’s film that I found to be incredibly sincere and touching. The entire featurette should be of great interest to fans of the movie and was an essential inclusion from Criterion. The label’s typically informative booklet is found inside the transparent keepcase. Its 22 pages consist of essays by Michel Ciment on the film and Peter Cowie on Maurice Ronet.

Final Thoughts

Louis Malle’s commitment to humanely exploring those enigmatic souls rarely shown on film is in full bloom with The Fire Within. It’s one of his finest pictures and also one of the best to emerge from France in the 1960s. The Criterion Collection DVD does an excellent job in both presenting Malle’s film and supplementing it with relevant, interesting special features, not to mention doing so at their lower price point. It may be my favourite release this year.

clydefro jones

Updated: Jun 29, 2008

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