Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: Dissipation and Despair in Louis Malle's 'The Fire Within'

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 11:04:00 AM

July 23: the date looms. It is written on the mirror of Alain Leroy's disheveled room. He has chosen his day, he has chosen his method, and he has decided what he must do in the meantime. It is perhaps the first time he has set a goal for himself, the first time he has followed through on a plan. 


Alain intends to kill himself, but before he does, he will visit his friends throughout Paris one by one. He has just returned from New York, where his marriage dissolved, and each encounter brings surprise and pleasure to his friends, followed quickly by shock and concern over his appearance and state of mind.  


In every instance, there is a great distance between Alain and his friends. And though there are reasons for this on both sides, it is clear that fault lies mostly with Alain himself. He has refused to grow up, refused to develop beyond the imbibing college student he was 10 years ago. He has not made a successful transition into the world of employment, into love and companionship, into citizenship and responsibility. And though he can recognized it and admit it, he cannot deal with it.  


We follow Alain from place to place, from apartment to cafe to bar to home, as he meets old friends. In each world, he is essentially a stranger. He stands out; he is awkward, intrusive and unnerving. His very presence renders each circumstance conspicuous. When he visits a friend who has become a family man, the domestic scene appears hollow and complacent; when he visits a dinner party of intellectuals, their self-satisfied repartee takes on air of hostility, of seething one-upmanship; and when he sits in an outdoor cafe, the life around him appears petty, random and meaningless.  


Louis Malle's direction immerses us in the mind of a deeply troubled man, one who can no longer see joy or pleasure or comfort, but only pain and futility. And Maurice Ronet, looking haggard and distraught but still handsome, is the very portrait of potential squandered, of the promise of youth dissipated, of the bounty of life reduced to disillusionment and despair. 


Criterion's new DVD release features archival interviews with Louis Malle and Maurice Ronet, and a short documentary about the film and the novel on which it was based, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's Le feu follet. It also includes essays on the film by critic Michel Ciment and film historian Peter Cowie.  


108 minutes. 1963. In French with English subtitles.