10 out of 10 – ‘The Fire Within’

108 minutes
Black and White
Louis Malle

I recently mentioned in my review for Oslo, August 31st that French director Louis Malle’s 1963 adaptation titled The Fire Within is an all-time classic in my eyes. Everything in this movie is either perfection, or damn near close to perfection – whether it be Malle’s direction, Maurice Ronet‘s performance as recovering alcoholic Alain Leroy, Ghislain Cloquet‘s cinematography or the brilliant use of Erik Satie’s melancholy piano compositions, Gymnopédies (most notably Gymnopédies no. 2). This striking black and white film is an unequaled depiction of the existential crisis a recovering alcoholic faces when attempting to find the motivation to re-enter society, or ultimately continue living.

The Fire Within is based on the novel Le feu follet (or, in English, Will O’ the Wisp) by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which itself was inspired by La Rochelle’s real-life friend, dadaist poet Jacques Rigaut, who announced that he would commit suicide at the age of 30 (which in fact he did) by shooting himself in the heart. Maurice Ronet’s character, Alain Leroy, is loosely based on Rigaut and F. Scott Fitzgerald (it is perhaps an homage, then, that Alain is seen reading Babylon Revisited, one of Fitzgerald’s more popular short stories, throughout the movie). Alain is a writer, living in Paris, staying at a private hospital taking the ‘cure’ for his alcohol dependence. His alcoholism and subsequent curing has slowly eaten away at his self-confidence, destroying his marriage and leaving him wondering if he is capable living his newly sober life.

Alain Leroy is deemed ‘cured’ by his doctor at the private hospital, where he is receiving a series of treatments for his alcoholism. Alain, constantly distressed and at war within himself; he visits his old friends in Paris, looking for a sign or a signal of emotion that will tell him there is hope. He visits a good friend of his that has given up his wild partying days for a wife, children and academia. They spent the better part of the day waxing philosophic, and even Alain’s friend doesn’t seem to have a solid argument for Alain to continue living.

While at a cafe, Alain watches young men in their cars try to pick up young women walking down the street, while simultaneously witnessing an old man at the seat next to him stealing a handful of straws off of the table. During this moment of contemplative observation, Alain finally gives in to his addiction and has a drink, the first of many that evening. He shows up to an old flame’s party, drunk, and has to recover in a spare room. He later wakes up and joins the party, in time for an old acquaintance to tell a notorious story from Alain’s drinking days. Alain, starting to show his resentment for the bourgeoisie, continues to drink and consequently, is asked to leave after making a scene.

Alain returns to the private hospital, and makes one last attempt to reconcile with  his estranged wife in New York, to no avail. Alain slowly and neatly packs his various belongings into a suitcase, before also shaving (the inspiration for the very familiar shaving scene in The Royal Tenenbaums)He finishes reading Fitzgerald and is seen holding a gun to his heart, thus confirming the inevitable fate of Alain Leroy. One has hope throughout the duration of the film that Alain will be able to gain the will to continue, but much like Alain, the viewer knows all too well that there is no light at the end of his proverbial tunnel, only darkness.

Though the film never received a U.S. commercial release, it has been released on DVD by none other than the Criterion Collection with a new and restored high-definition digital transfer.  Malle has crafted a dark (yet at moments humorous) and personal portrait of a self-destructive man’s inner turmoil when faced with reintegrating society, toward which he feels indifferent.

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