Louis Malle tends to be somewhat chameleonic. Perhaps to his own detriment among auteur theorists. He doesn’t get mentioned with the likes of other auteurs from his era and yet I continue to find more and more films from him that are so elegantly crafted and intensely felt, even though they occur within a wide range of film styles and genres. Last year I watched his final film he made, which was Vanya on 42nd Street, basically a stage play, which was just fantastic. He made all sorts of films….drama, neo-noir, comedy, surrealist…..just about everything. He in fact made challenging work for the better part of 4 decades. That’s not something many directors can claim. He continues to gain my respect, even though it’s hard for me to quantify and categorize his work. I just know that I really enjoy them. The Fire Within is no exception.
One of 2012’s most acclaimed films was Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st. However, many essays on the film fail to mention the fact that this film is basically a re-working of Malle’s The Fire Within. They are essentially the same stories (both based upon the book Le feu follet by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle), except Malle’s original work regards the addiction to alcohol whereas Trier’s work looks at heroin. The fact of the matter remains that these particular stories are not really about the addiction per se. These are not works that address the clinical aspects of the addiction, rather the aftermath of individuals who reached rock bottom, who entered rehab and who came out on the other side in a deep depression. We get the sense that in fact, though, the depression has always been there, it’s just that the addiction was a way to cover it up for awhile. Without the escape of the drug of choice, the hopelessness and despair becomes something of a siren song leading these men toward suicide.
For me, Malle’s work is an underrated gem in his canon, and an uncompromising masterpiece of elegiac minimalism and despair, filled with the perfect balance of character and situational context, psychological examination, and propulsive, focused writing that allows us to at least understand and comprehend the man’s situation, even if his situation appears irrational from our perspective. What I struggled with in Trier’s modern interpretation, is that the choice to have the man named Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) released from re-hab and set-up with an interview felt like an institutional reintroduction of him into society as an aspect of his re-hab. The fact we realize early on in Oslo that the man is not cured, and yet is essentially patted on the head and told to go on his way, leaves an implication of irresponsibility on the part of the “institution”, which in the case of the Norwegian medical insurance structure, is a government subsidized entity. This failed aspect of “society” to reintroduce Anders and “heal” him leaves the film with an oddly manipulative feel, as if there is a blame aspect to be placed somewhere through this association with the medical irresponsibility and the failed recognition of this man’s intent. It felt hollow to me. It wasn’t a clinical study. It wasn’t an examination of suicide either. I felt manipulated by the fact that the man is shown to perhaps have a way out of his depression and MIGHT just be able to move on. The film has moments toward the end where there is a suspense as to his outcome. But, when the outcome comes to light in the final passages, it revealed how hollow this film was and what a despicable exercise in audience manipulation it was. I realize many saw something else in this film, but I feel something important was missing…..the sense of internal responsibility for one’s actions and the sense that there’s no one else to blame for this.
Malle’s film is another thing altogether. It is a clear-eyed examination of a man named Alain Leroy (played brilliantly by Maurice Ronet) who has a clear intent to kill himself. From the get-go, we see him planning and prepping for the day of his own execution. He goes through the motions of finding brief comfort in the arms of a woman, through visiting his friends one last time, but there is no disguising the fact he has reached the end of his rope. It is this focus of vision in Malle’s film that rings true to me throughout its running time. Malle’s use of Erik Satie’s piano works are also a magnificent choice. Unadorned, and melancholy, these musical interludes provide the right touch of cinematic embellishment, without manipulation. Using the techniques of natural lighting, stark b&w and hand-held camera work gives the film a focus on reality. There’s no flashbacks here. There’s no digressions into potential hope. There’s nothing but depression. This is not an easy film to like. However regarding the subject matter, it is as respectful, focused, and elegant a film as I can think of on the subject.