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The Fire Within (Le Feu Follet): Criterion Edition

Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Maurice Ronet, Lena Skerla, Yvonne Clech, and Hubert Deschamps

(US DVD: 13 May 2008)

Arguably, Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (aka Le Feu Follet, 1963) is one of the most depressing and nihilistic films in the history of motion pictures. An uncompromising study of the suicidal mind, this is a film that may prove to be difficult to watch. Nevertheless, The Fire Within has many aesthetic qualities that guarantee a compelling and unforgettable viewing experience. Thus, it should not be entirely surprising that in spite of its somber topic, The Fire Within managed to win the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1963.


The Fire Within chronicles the last 24-hours of Alan Leroy (Maurice Ronet), a failed writer who has decided to take his own life. As the movie begins, we learn that he is a recovering alcoholic under treatment at a clinic in Versailles, France. On his last day of life Alan travels to Paris to visit old friends and acquaintances. The actual meaning of this day-long trip is an elusive point in The Fire Within: while one might think that he wants to reconnect with them to find an excuse to continue living, he might as well be looking for reassurance to commit suicide.


Indeed, most of his friends form a close circle of detached, hedonistic, wealthy socialites and celebrities. By portraying bourgeois society as decadent and without redeeming values, Alan cannot find a reason to continue living. As such, The Fire Within offers one of the most aggressive criticisms to bourgeois society, and in this sense it looks forward to the assault perpetrated by the genial Luis Bunuel in The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).


Furthermore, The Fire Within is permeated with an overwhelming sense of doom. In this regard, the mise-en-scene constantly reminds us of Alan’s mental instability. For instance, the movie persistently focuses on a mirror in Alan’s bedroom, where he has written the date he will attempt to take his own life. In addition, a newspaper clip adorns one of Alan’s walls, depicting the tragic suicide of Marilyn Monroe.


If you think about it, The Fire Within deals with delicate subject matter that was considered taboo back in the ‘60s. And to tell the truth, the serious public discussion and negotiation of this topic continues to be off limits in much of Western culture. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that, upon its original theatrical release, The Fire Within stirred the sensibilities of the most traditional and conservative segments of society.


But then again, by the early ‘60s Malle was already well known for his subversive films that pushed the limits of what was acceptable for popular consumption. Indeed, let us recall that the release of Malle’s The Lovers (aka Les Amants, 1958) received harsh criticisms because of its steaming sexual content. Believe it or not, such was the commotion surrounding this film that the US Supreme Court was required to determine a legal definition of obscenity. As the court constantly failed to settle on the best way to define obscenity with the context of American law, Justice Potter Stewart merely concluded: “I know it when I see it”.


In any event, Malle’s inimitable cinematic vision was not the only factor that contributed to the somber and nihilistic nature of The Fire Within. Indeed, this film is a rather faithful adaptation of the book by the same name written in 1931 by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. As the story goes, Drieu’s book actually was a dramatization of the life of Jacques Rigaut, who was a dear friend of Drieu and committed suicide in 1929. Adding to the bleak history behind The Fire Within, Drieu was an enthusiastic Nazi sympathizer and he took his own life in 1945, a few months after the allied liberation of France during World War II.


Equally important to the aesthetical achievement of The Fire Within was Maurice Ronet’s amazing portrayal of the troubled Alan. Indeed, as this film ultimately boils down to a character study, much of the weight of The Fire Within rested on Ronet’s shoulders. In this regard, even though Alan is a hedonistic, failed writer with very few redeemable qualities, Ronet succeeded in creating a character that easily earns our sympathy.


At this point it is important to mention that, even though Drieu set his book in the 1920s, the movie takes place in the 1960s. Such an alteration probably was due to avoid the complex and expensive logistics of shooting a period piece. But nevertheless, this change ultimately allowed Malle to combine, in a fascinating and paradoxical way, some of the visual and narrative elements found in the Film Noir and French New Wave genres. Indeed, The Fire Within features dramatic black and white cinematography, morally dubious characters, fluid camera motion, relatively long tracking shots, location shooting, and features a troubled individual haunted by an existential conundrum that exposes the absurdity of the human condition. 


Malle was also an accomplished producer of documentaries. The Silent World (aka Le Monde du Silence, 1956), Malle’s collaboration with the legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau, won the cherished Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival. Malle’s inclination for the cinema verite is evident in The Fire Within, which at time feels unnerving in its meticulous chronicle of Alan’s last day. 


For those inclined to explore this brilliant and nihilistic film, the Criterion Collection has recently released The Fire Within on a superb DVD. Typical of a Criterion disc, the movie is presented in pristine audio and video quality. In addition, this DVD presentation contains a few interesting extra features, including two informative documentaries on the film and its source novel. An insightful essay written by renowned film critic Michel Ciment appropriately rounds up the package.


Few would disagree that even though The Fire Within is an extremely bleak and somber film, it manages to reveal the cinematic genius of Malle. We ought to thank Malle for authoring an intelligent film that aptly deals with a delicate and controversial topic. Therefore, The Fire Within may be depressing and nihilistic, but it remains an important entry in the oeuvre of one of the most talented filmmakers in the history of cinema.

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Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


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