The Fire Within (Le feu follet) [DVD]
Director : Louis Malle
Screenplay : Louis Malle (based on the novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1963
Stars : Maurice Ronet (Alain Leroy), Léna Skerla (Lydia), Yvonne Clech (Mademoiselle Farnoux), Hubert Deschamps (D’Averseau), Jean-Paul Moulinot (Dr. La Barbinais), Mona Dol (Madame La Barbinais), Pierre Moncorbier (Moraine), René Dupuy (Charlie), Bernard Tiphaine (Milou), Bernard Noël (Dubourg), Ursula Kubler (Fanny), Jeanne Moreau (Eva), Alain Mottet (Urcel)
While Louis Malle is often associated with the French New Wave, largely because of the young age at which he made his first feature (he was in his early 20s) and the time period when he started making films (the late 1950s), he was always just outside that movement. Unlike Truffaut, Godard, and others, he never wrote for Cahiers du cinema, and he came from a wealthy industrialist family, which made him a reluctant part of the bourgeois establishment against which the New Wave was so pointedly counter. It was also because his films didn’t look like other New Wave films. They were sharper, more narratively driven, and lacked that freewheeling aesthetic that marked the new from the old. Sure, he used an improvised Miles Davis score in his feature debut Elevator to the Gallows (1958), and his scandalous sophomore film The Lovers (1958) daringly drifted between social satire and dreamy romanticism; but, they were, in some sense, too polished to be truly nouvelle vague.
The same cannot be said for The Fire Within (Le feu follet), a film that many feel is Malle’s true masterpiece and is, perhaps not incidentally, the one that is most closely aligned with New Wave aesthetics. Shot with documentary-like handheld cameras throughout the streets of Paris (which becomes its own character), it has a loose, flowing, incidental narrative built around a central theme that gives its otherwise disjointed scenes a sense of thematic purpose. Originally intended to be shot in color, Malle ultimately went with black and white, creating a more stripped down, direct aesthetic that matches the emotional rawness of his subject matter. It is, like the best of the New Wave films, a character study about an outsider, a man who plans to kill himself because it is only through death that he can imagine reconnecting with those around him. If that sounds like a downer, it is, but it’s an exquisite, heart-rending downer that draws us into the character’s world and helps us understand his impending doom, even as we dread its arrival.
The main character is Alain Leroy, who is played by Maurice Ronet in what most consider to be his finest performance. Alain is a writer who has disappeared into a detox clinic. He is technically cured from his alcohol dependency, but he fears that if he ventures back into the world, he will immediately relapse. He has a wife who lives in New York, but he has little or no contact with her. The lack of communication between them is underscored by the fact that the film opens with Alain in bed with Lydia (Léna Skerla), his wife’s friend and go-between.
The majority of the film tracks the final 24 hours of Alain’s life before he plans to kill himself. He leaves the clinic and journeys into the heart of Paris, where he attempts to reconnect with a number of the people from his past. What is most striking about these passages is how perpetually alone Alain seems. In much of the film’s opening, he is in fact alone on the screen, which visually reinforces his disconnect from everything and everyone around him. But the real power is in how that disconnect follows him even when he is surrounded by other people. Regardless of who he’s meeting--old friends, former lovers, his favorite bartender--we are always first and foremost attuned to the distance between them and the lack of connection that is the source of his despondency.
For Malle, The Fire Within was his first fully satisfying film. Made for deeply personal reasons, the story, which is drawn from a novel by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, connected with Malle’s own inner turbulence and functioned as a kind of catharsis, helping him to exorcise his own demons. He always said that he made it entirely for himself and would have been happy if audiences had never seen it. While such a statement is certainly in keeping with the film’s deeply personal nature, it ignores the film’s fundamental point, which is that we can see in a single man’s life and anguish--whether it be Alain’s or Drieu la Rochelle’s or Malle’s--a reflection of our own turbulent inner lives.
|The Fire Within Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||May 13, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new high-definition anamorphic transfer, taken from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored, is all-around superb. The image is sharp, well-detailed, and very filmlike. There are virtually no signs of age, and the wide range of grays in the image is nicely reproduced, as are the solid black levels. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical print track, is solid, as well. No hiss or aural artifacts to be found.|
|The supplements begin with several interview excerpts, the first being 20 minutes with director Louis Malle conducted for German television in 1994, a little more than a year before he died. Malle has plenty of insight to offer, one of the most intriguing bits being his initial desire to play Maurice Ronet’s part in the film. In the second interview, Ronet appears in a 6-minute excerpt from a 1966 French television program. Criterion has also put together a new 27-minute program of interviews titled “Malle’s Fire Within,” in which actress Alexandra Stewart (who plays Solange in the film) and directors Philippe Collin and Volker Schlöndorff (both of whom worked as Malle’s assistant directors) discuss the film. Finally, the disc includes Jusqu’au 23 Juillet, a half-hour documentary from 2005 that compares the film and its source novel, Le feu follet by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. It features interviews with actor Mathieu Amalric, writer Didier Daeninckx, and Cannes festival curator Pierre-Henri Deleau, who discuss the interconnections among Malle’s film, the novel on which its based, and the life of a Dadaist poet Jacques Rigaut, on whom the novel was based.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection