Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Fire Within (1963) - Directed by Louis Malle

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. 


Sam Juliano said...

"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."

Superlative work here Jon! And though you are right to note that this particular Malle film is 'hard to like' I have always considered it among his best, and most underrated. However, as you know I stand on opposite ends of the divide with you on the equally elegiac and haunting OSLO, AUGUST 31ST, which was one of three favorite films of 2012. Obviously I did not have the issues you did, but completely respect your issues. Malle is a great artists, and among my favorites by him are: AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS, ATLANTIC CITY, MURMUR OF THE HEART, LACOMBE LUCIEN and ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS.

Jon said...

Thanks Sam, and I respect your opinions on these films as well, and I understand that my complaints on Oslo are very particular and idiosyncratic and probably not shared by many people. To those Malle films I also add The Lovers and Black Moon which are both really interesting.

katia said...

“Fire Within” by Luis 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. Victor Enyutin