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The Fire Within
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,The Fire Within

The Fire Within

Suicide is both the subject and the inspiration for The Fire Within, known in French as Le Feu Follet, which means will o' the wisp. Released in 1963, it was directed by French filmmaker Louis Malle, who later called it a personal favorite from his early career. The story centers on Alain Leroy, a recovering alcoholic who's been taking the cure at a pricey rehabilitation clinic in Versailles, thanks to his estranged wife, who's footing the bill.

Alain would like to stay at the place indefinitely, since he enjoys the absence of obligations and responsibilities; but he's gotten over his drinking, so his doctor says he's got to go. He ponders his options during the restless night that follows, eventually muttering to himself that tomorrow is the day he'll commit suicide. The next morning he packs up a few possessions, including a pistol he's hidden in his room, and heads for Paris, where he spends a long day looking up people he used to hang out with-lovers, drinking companions, a couple of political outlaws, and others. They remember him as the booze-guzzling daredevil he used to be, and when they see his new clean-and-sober image, they say he looks terrible and is probably worse off than ever. Late in the day Alain succumbs to alcohol again, attends a dinner party that quickly goes sour, and returns to the clinic. The ending takes the story's grim logic to its inevitable conclusion.

Malle started work on The Fire Within in 1962, after a journalist friend said he was leaving on a trip and then shot himself in his room, where he was found days later. Malle had been fascinated by suicide as an intellectual issue since his college days, when he discovered French existentialist Albert Camus's statement that suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem. Malle preferred Camus's objective view to the teachings of his Roman Catholic education, which saw suicide as a mortal sin, and he decided his movie would take a psychological approach, impartially observing the behavior of a young man who opts out of life because he isn't interested in becoming a true adult as his old friends have.

Malle began by writing a long story treatment for the film, set in 1962, when some French ultraconservatives were making violent efforts to thwart Algeria's struggle against French colonial rule. Malle was dissatisfied with what he'd written, so a friend suggested that he take a look at Le Feu Follet, a short novel published in 1931 by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a French fascist who'd collaborated with the Nazi occupation of France during the World War II years. Drieu's novel was based on the last days of real-life surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut, who'd killed himself after years of writing and talking about it; this made Drieu feel guilty for failing to prevent it, and in 1945 he committed suicide as well. Malle had read Le Feu Follet years earlier, but reading it again persuaded him to abandon his own outline and adapt Drieu's novel instead.

Although The Fire Within was the first screenplay Malle had written on his own, the work went quickly and smoothly, and he found that the result was even more personal than it would have been if he'd gone with his original idea, since using Drieu's novel provided camouflage for the intense connection he felt with the story. Like the main character, Malle was about thirty, felt anxious about leaving youth behind, and was living by night and drinking a lot. Ditto for Maurice Ronet, whom he invited to play the picture's leading role. Ronet had starred in Malle's excellent debut feature, the 1958 thriller Elevator to the Gallows, but Malle wouldn't sign him for The Fire Within unless the actor lost more than forty pounds so he'd look malnourished and exhausted. Ronet succeeded in slimming down, only to face new demands from the director, who worried that Ronet's supple acting would cancel out the hard-edged personality shared by Malle's suicidal friend and Drieu's suicidal character, impatient people who hated sentimentality. Malle worked at hardening Ronet's portrayal, achieving what he claimed was his first real success at controlling and fine-tuning a performance, before the camera and in the editing room.

Malle shot The Fire Within in color for two days, but when he saw the rushes he found the color distracting, so he started over with the high-contrast black and white he'd used so effectively in Elevator to the Gallows a few years before. He recalled later that the depressing subject matter made the shooting "traumatic" for him and the small crew, who filmed the whole picture in real Paris locations, but the movie got deservedly strong reviews when it reached theaters. One of the many fine supporting players is Jeanne Moreau, who'd filled major roles in Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, a controversial drama also made by Malle in 1958; one of the director's favorites, she went on to costar with Brigitte Bardot in his 1965 comedy Viva Maria! The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent.

Long after making it, Malle remarked that with The Fire Within he finally managed to find a cinematic style-objective, unobtrusive, no frills-that ideally matched the content of the story he was telling. One obvious reason is that he'd learned from the previous pictures he'd directed, but another must be his huge emotional involvement in the picture. Malle felt so close to both the real Maurice Ronet and the fictional Alain Leroy that he filled Alain's hospital-room closet with his own clothing, and even his own gun. "I was Alain Leroy," he remarked in the interview book Malle on Malle, a good source of information on the film. Although this was his fifth narrative feature, it was the first he was completely happy with. He had good reason to be.

Producer: Alain Queffelean
Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle, based on the novel Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle
Cinematographer: Ghislain Cloquet
Film Editing: Suzanne Baron
Production Design: Bernard Evein
Music: Eric Satie
Cast: Maurice Ronet (Alain Leroy), Jeanne Moreau (Eva), Henri Serre (Frederic), Léna Skerla (Lydia), Yvonne Clech (Mlle Farnoux), Hubert Deschamps (D'Averseau); Jean-Paul Moulinot (Dr. La Barbinais), Mona Dol (Mme La Barbinais), Pierre Moncorbier (Moraine), René Dupuis (Charlie), Bernard Tiphaine (Milou), Bernard Noel (Dubourg), Ursula Kubler (Fanny), Alain Mottet (Urcel), François Gragnon (François Minville), Romain Bouteille (Jerome Minville), Jacques Sereys (Cyrille Lavaud), Alexandra Stewart (Solange), Claude Deschamps (Maria), Tony Taffin (Brancion).
BW-108m. Letterboxed.

by David Sterritt

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