Le Feu follet (1963)

aka: The Fire Within


Le Feu follet photo
At a private clinic near to Paris, a burnt-out writer, Alain Leroy, is being treated for alcoholism. Despite being almost cured of his addiction, Alain, in his mid-thirties, has recurring bouts of depression and has resolved to kill himself in a few days' time. One morning, he sets out on one final trip to Paris. During the day, he meets up with old friends and lovers, but somehow he is unable to make contact with any of them. Friendships that were once so strong no longer have any substance and Alain becomes increasingly disgusted with the cosy, bourgeois lives that his former acquaintances now lead. By the end of the day, he no longer has any qualms over killing himself...
© filmsdefrance.com 2012

Film Review

Le Feu follet (a.k.a. The Fire Within) is the bleakest and possibly greatest of Louis Malle's films, one that confronts the highly problematic issue of suicide with a rare insight and directness.
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Throughout his career, Malle made a habit of courting controversy and often dealt with what were (and to some extent still are) taboo subjects: marital infidelity, incest, child prostitution, Nazi collaboration and the Holocaust. It was his unstinting sincerity as an auteur, coupled with a profound desire to understand human nature, that enabled Malle to confront the most difficult subjects without alienating his audience, and there are few subjects as controversial and misunderstood as suicide.

Le Feu follet is Louis Malle's most personal film, made at time when he was negotiating his own existential crisis. Tormented by doubts about his future, deeply sceptical about his abilities as a filmmaker, Malle retreated into himself, living by night and becoming increasingly dependent on alcohol. It was in this period of turmoil that he began to write a script inspired by the suicide of a friend. He was on the point of abandoning this project when he came across Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's 1931 novel Le Feu follet, which was inspired by the suicide of the surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut. One of the most prominent collaborators at the time of the Occupation, Drieu La Rochelle himself committed suicide after the war, having realised the fallacy of his fascistic sympathies. Malle's adaptation of Le Feu follet was to be a cathartic experience, and by projecting his own traumas onto the central protagonist, a disillusioned writer of his own age, he creates a film of exquisite depth and poignancy which convinces us that suicide can be a meaningful act - a rational choice, not a tragic act of folly. Significantly, this was the first film of his that Malle was entirely happy with.

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Originally, Malle had intended that the part of the main character, Alain Leroy, should be played by a non-professional actor. He later changed his mind and opted to give the role to his dear friend Maurice Ronet, who had previously taken the lead in his earlier film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958). At the time, Ronet was overweight and was required to lose twenty kilograms in a matter of months, which he did by going on a crash diet, thereby giving himself the drawn, emaciated look that the role demanded. Whilst making the film, Ronet allowed himself to become Malle's alter ego, even wearing exactly the kind of clothes that Malle himself wore. Under Malle's meticulous direction, Maurice Ronet turns in what is widely considered his finest performance, the most harrowingly truthful portrayal of a man for whom life is nothing but a succession of bitter compromises, against which death is the more appealing alternative. It was a character very different to Ronet himself, a man who lived life to the full, although the actor's own life would be tragically cut short: he died from cancer at the age of 55.

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In Drieu La Rochelle's novel, suicide is portrayed as an act of redemption, an accomplishment that ennobles a man. Malle takes a very different view, showing it as a means of escape, a rejection of a world that offers nothing but decay and meaningless compromise. Unlike his peers, Leroy cannot bear to sacrifice his integrity, as both a man and an artist, for the sake of petit bourgeois advantage. The world he once rejoiced in now fills him with revulsion. It is not fulfilment he seeks, but a way out of the humiliating mediocrity that comes with ageing and the need to conform in order to make a living. By choosing extinction over a life that has become a meaningless sham, Leroy asserts his authenticity in the clearest terms, whilst strengthening the bonds to those he was unable to fully connect with in life.

One of the things that most preoccupies an artist (writers and filmmakers being no exception) is the need to feel that his work will live on after his death. This notion seems to be at the heart of Le Feu follet and may have been, at least in part, Malle's motivation for making the film. The character Leroy realises that he is unlikely to achieve the kind of immortality which, as a writer, he needs, and so he turns to drink. Recovering from alcoholism, he discovers how little he has affected the lives of those around him. It is almost as if he does not exist, has never existed. From his depression there grows a narcissistic self-obsession which can only reinforce his sense of isolation and failure. At one point in the script, Leroy is referred to, ironically, as a 'revenant', a spirit that roams the Earth for a short time before entering the afterlife. Ronet's portrayal has an unsettling ghost-like quality about it that emphasises his character's disconnection from the world around him and makes his fate inevitable. The writer has to write himself out of his own life in order to bring himself alive.

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The film's stark, naturalistic composition, beautifully rendered in black-and-white, brings both realism and a visceral sense of melancholia to the piece. Erik Satie's piano music (Les Gymnopédies) is well-suited to accompany Leroy on his slow journey towards self-destruction, accentuating the fragility of a man who is teetering on the brink and for whom life has become a series of discordant notes laced with bitterness and sadness. The sensitivity that Malle shows in his direction is matched, if not surpassed, by Ronet in what is assuredly the finest performance of his career. By virtue of its grim subject matter, Le Feu follet was rejected when nominated for the 1964 Oscars (in the Best Foreign Language Film category) but it was justly honoured at that year's Venice Film Festival, winning both the Film Critics' Award and the Special Jury Prize. Louis Malle went on to make many great films after this, often broaching subjects that no one else would touch with his characteristic frankness, but rarely did he achieve the lyricism, sincerity and emotional power of Le Feu follet, his masterpiece.
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.

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The director Louis Malle also worked with the actor Maurice Ronet on the film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958).

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