"Life flows too slowly in me. Tomorrow I kill myself."
The Fire Within, Louis Malle's 1963 mediation on the Pierre Drieu La Rochelle novel Le feu follet, is surely a polarizing piece of cinema. The above line, spoken by Maurice Ronet in the role of Alain Leroy, recovering alcoholic and depressed lout, isn't a metaphorical come-on. He really means it, and The Fire Within is 108 minutes of watching Alain prepare for his suicide.
Suicide is still one of those subjects that authors and filmmakers tend to be shy about. More often than not, when the topic is examined, it's either from the point of view of someone avoiding it or more likely about the fall-out the suicide leaves behind and the effect the death has on his or her loved ones. It's always been odd to me that there aren't more fictional endeavors that seek to understand the point of view of the suicide himself (I hesitate to call anyone a suicide "victim;" you certainly couldn't do so for Alain in this movie). In a day and age when a serial killer can be the protagonist of a TV show, a person taking his own life is still taboo, still not talked about. Some fear that maybe such a film will romanticize the idea and make the choice seem attractive; others may just fear to entertain the possibility because they fear what they will see at that edge of life, or they are so set in their ways about it being wrong or cowardly or what have you, they don't even bother to look at the grayer nuances of the morality.
Again, any of those fears could just as easily be applied to a sociopathic killer. You might make murder look cool, you might have to accept your own violent fantasies, and Jesus, yes, murder is wrong!
Louis Malle disproves all of those concerns in The Fire Within, and he does so by not addressing them at all. There is nothing romantic about Alain Leroy's final days, and whether Malle answers any questions about himself within the narrative is an item he keeps to himself (though, we do know that he lived a happy and productive life long after completing the movie, dying from lymphoma in 1995 at the age of 63; so, clearly making this picture didn't push him over the edge). Questions of right and wrong don't even come into play. Alain has made his decision, and the camera merely follows him on his way.
"The thing is, I can't reach out with my hands. I can't touch things. And when I do touch things, I feel nothing."
When we meet Alain, he is on his first outing following four months of intensive detox at a clinic in Versailles. Alain, as we will learn, was once the life of the party, a pretty boy who has destroyed his looks and his nerves through an excess of alcohol. The ladies loved him, and as we'll see over the course of the movie, often more out of a desire to take care of the lost little boy than anything sexual. As it is, Alain is currently on a date of sorts with Lydia (Lena Skerla), a woman who is not his wife. Alain left his wife, Dorothy, back in New York, where apparently his demons got the better of him. Dorothy has ended all contact with her husband, and despite whatever horrible things Alain did to cause this, Lydia still encourages him to run away with her. Alain has other plans.
Malle smartly keeps Alain's past sketchy. If Dorothy can't forgive him, we might not be able to either if we knew what he had done to earn her disdain. We only learn more about Alain's past as he encounters people who were a part of it. Some are oblivious to the changes in him, only remembering what a wild man he once was; others cautiously believe that he will return to his former self; while still more pity a man who is a mere shell of his youthful Bacchanalian image. Alain falls mostly in the latter category. He holds no pride in his past, seeing it as a string of failed connections. He has no one, and that makes him no one. (As Morrissey would say, "I enter nothing, and nothing enters me.") He wanders through Paris, seeking to make peace with his friends on the eve of his final deed, like a hero in an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Charlie Wales in "Babylon Revisted," visits his old friends because he wants to prove he has changed; unlike Charlie, Alain has accepted that he has not. Maybe he has found some clarity, but once the cloud of booze has been lifted, there is not much remaining that's worth liking.
A perpetual gray hangs over The Fire Within, like Alain is stuck at the moment when the sun has just begun to set. The only atmospheric changes to come are rain and the skies growing even darker. For a lot of the picture, particularly when outside or in the larger apartment of Alain's friends the Lavauds (Jacques Sereys and Alexandra Stewart), Malle and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet keep a respectable distance, shooting Alain with a preservative pallor. He walks through Paris like it's a museum, pausing next to statues, visiting his old haunts like exhibits of a distant artistic period. Here is the bar where I had my morning pick-me-ups, and over here the apartment where my former drinking buddy has settled into a life of family and letters. On the other side, you will find my friends the radical political activists, still pursuing the lost cause the way my poet pals still pursue medicated oblivion.
In some fashion or other, Alain tells all of these people that he is going to kill himself, something we know those contemplating suicide will do. For the most part, they choose to ignore it, thinking their friend is being dramatic and will snap out of it. Only Jeanne (Jeanne Moreau), who lives amongst the decadent poets, seems to take it at face value, accepting her own helplessness with regret when she lets Alain get away. These reactions serve to establish that otherness that Alain talks about. Conversation proves his separateness from other people, the camera shows he is one step removed from his surroundings. Even his confining room in the clinic appears larger than him, the clutter of his life arranged in an attempt to mimic the clutter of the outside world, but serving more like a mausoleum. Or, again, like a museum--a place where the defunct is entombed for posterity. The photos of Lydia and Dorothy, a brunette and a blonde, the attainable and the irretrievable, that Alain keeps on his mirror are no substitute for the real thing.
The Fire Within is a sad movie, but it's also engrossing in a way that is almost counterintuitive. I found myself worrying more that Alain might fall off the wagon and take a drink than I was if he would carry through with the suicide. In fact, if I'm being honest, what worried me about that was that if he got too drunk, he might not carry it through. If Alain were to go on a bender, he could get stuck in the same cycle and never get out. I suppose I could have been wishing for a parable out of the Albert Camus school of thought, using the writer's concept of the plight of 20th-century man, which has so fascinated me and been a part of my own work, the idea that by accepting the need to kill oneself, a metaphysical death occurs that makes the physical one redundant. Yet, again, there is not a lot of philosophy here. Alain discusses a variety of ideas about the forward momentum of existence with his buddy Dubourg (Bernard Noel), the armchair Egyptologist, but Alain has already reached that Camus state. The larger questions no longer concern him.
"I leave you with an indelible stain."
It would be silly to think, though, that Malle is able to avoid all moral questions in regard to Alain's decision simply by not bringing them up. Every viewer enters into The Fire Within with his or her own set of morality, and while ideally any story can take us out of our own safe world and teach us a little something about what others experience, in the end we still can only measure what goes on in that story against what we already know or believe. In my case, for instance, I found myself differing from Alain when Malle reveals what words his subject intends to leave behind. Alain only composes his note on the day he is to commit the act (July 23, the date written across his mirror), after indulging in a morning comprised of the purely mundane. He packs up his things, finishes the book he has been reading, and takes down his photographs.
In this tidying up of his own mess, Alain brings to mind the character of Robert Frobisher in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Frobisher chooses suicide for very different reasons than Alain, but in a way, some of his methods are the same. He even goes so far as to wrap a towel around his head to try to keep from making too much of a mess for the poor hotel maid to have to clean up. Alain, too, wants to exit in an orderly fashion, but I can't agree with the ulterior motive that surfaces late in the game to contradict the previously stated intention.
The suicide note is telling. Whereas Frobisher wants his death to reverberate as little as possible across the lives of others, Alain reveals that his decision isn't just about personal release, but a final act of revenge. He wants to get back at Dorothy, and in a grander way, all of womankind, which he has seen as abandoning him. His death would be the "indelible stain," and though he would be finished with the pain, Dorothy will have to live with the lingering after-effects. Was I blind to this meanness in his previous poetic musings, or is this the first time that he has truly been honest? That is the final question I was left asking myself as The Fire Within concluded, drifting off quietly with no announcement, a black screen, not even a "Fin" title card. In a weird way, the final frozen image of Alain echoes the last shot of Antoine Doinel in Truffaut's The 400 Blows. On one hand, it says everything we expect it to say, and on the other, it hints at deeper ambiguity. Is it hopeful? Will they get everything they wanted? Or have the trials only just begun?
Having had the time to think about it, I realize that it's this last turn that makes The Fire Within truly special. It's one thing to track Alain's decline, to let the pieces fall where they may and simply present us with a glimpse at a rarely examined state of being--that would have been something unique and glorious on its own--but it's a whole other to stop us in our tracks and ask us if we really have it all figured out, if what we have seen is limited to what appears on the surface of it.
It's a daring move. It takes The Fire Within from a portrait that seemingly avoids editorializing to one that reveals that everything has an editorial slant. If we got back to the reasons filmmakers and writers might be scared to tackle the suicide question, it could be that they don't want to risk getting caught in the quagmire of something that can only bring more questions that have no answers. At least not ones that can be found without going over to the other side--and once we do, we can never come back to share, we only become another query.
BLOG BUSINESS: I apologize to my readers for not updating last week. I would like to pretend it was on purpose in order to keep that cute picture of Jeanne Moreau riding high on top of the blog, but that just isn't true. Various comic book events over the last three weeks meant a lot of increased activity and almost all of my reviewing ground to a halt. I will be attempting to post at least two more reviews here in the next two weeks in order to catch up.
I love that you blog about Criterion discs, Jamie.
Sorry, I'm new to this part of your career---do you buy all of these discs (and if you do, I'm so freaking jealous) or do you Netflick'em?
Also, who'd win in a fight---
Louis Malle, or the Hulk?
Louis Malle was married to Candice Bergen, and I don't think the Hulk could handle that. Plus, you can say he name as "Maul."
For the last two years I've been writing for DVD Talk, and so anything I write for them is given to me. Through that, I was able to establish this blog and so I do get the occasional disc, such as this one, from Criterion directly. Others I buy. It's maybe a three-way split at this point. 1-300 or so, I purchased in various stages. A lot of eBay back in the day when you could still get a deal on eBay.
Hey Jamie, you did a great job in reviewing this film. I posted my own thoughts on it today, and I appreciate your insights. Just want to let you know that someone is reading your posts from fiber years ago! ;)
“Fire Within” by Louis Malle (1963) makes the viewers ask themselves and try to answer – why Alain Leroy, an intelligent, good looking man, successful with women and having friends with connections, thinks about suicide? Is there something wrong with him, and if so, what can it be? He doesn’t look like an eccentric in any way. He talks like an educated and a genuine human being, without affectation and rhetorical effects. Why could he lose the feeling of life’s value? His psychiatrist tries to persuade him to concentrate on bright side of life – the world’s challenges and mysteries, to give himself to the joys of sex and adventure. But Alain contemplates suicide not because something is wrong with him (he is quite able to enjoy life), but because something is wrong with the world. He observes that life makes people too worried, too frustrated and too indifferent or cruel to one another. He feels that the human world is crooked and he tries to understand why, and it is at this point he became disappointed in life as it is offered to us.
Luis Malle gives Alain the floor/screen, gives him the chance to explain to the viewers what the problem is. With never fading curiosity and sometimes amazement we observe Alain’s “philosophical agony” vis-à-vis the human world we all live in. And the director gives more than a fair chance to Alain’s friends to try to persuade him to continue to live. The film is constructed as a kind of Platonic dialogues between a human being and world, through visual images and interpersonal situations. The film is in no way “theoretical”: all the arguments are symbolic and existentially rooted. The film is for the living human beings, not for intellectuals by profession. We as viewers are given chance to see both sides – the individual human being and the world in general. We, as if, have to decide for Alain his choice.
Did Alain die in order to help us continue to live? May be, Malle made this film to reinforce our desire to live if we are able to comprehend Alain’s reasons for wanting to die. Will Alain’s suicide awaken us to a more genuine, less vain living? The actors are emotionally sensitive, intellectually proficient and semantically competent. They play characters caught between life and death, as we all are. “Fire Within” is not only an exquisitely “intellectual” but an existentially “philosophical” film of a rare organic combination of psychological sophistication and common humanity for all those who are living and thinking about life.
Please, read essay about Malle’s film “The ‘King’ Who Refused the Kingdom of Life for its Imperfection” (with analysis of shots from the film).
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