One of Louis Malles lesser known films, The Fire Within (1963) is also one of his best, a low-key portrait of a suicidal writer making one last survey of his life while working up the will to make that final leap into the void. The film opens with Alain (Maurice Ronet) about to be discharged from a Versailles clinic after taking a four-month rest cure to alleviate his alcoholism. It was a woefully inadequate treatment, since Alains drinking is merely a symptom of his real disease, his inability to connect with the people and events in his life. Though he served as a soldier in Algiers and had numerous affairs (much to dismay of his American wife), hes still filled with a sense of purposelessness and existential malaise. Ive spent all my life waiting for something to happen, he confides to a friend, and admits that he has no idea of what that something might be.
Though Alain is in his mid-30s and looking a bit worse for wear, he doesnt know how to grow up and settle into life or how to balance compromise with integrity. After leaving the clinic, he makes a last trip to Paris to visit some old acquaintances. One longtime friend has settled into a contented marriage and is turning his youthful interest in esoterica into a book about Egypt; this transformation from amateur to professional appalls Alain, who sees it as the end of youthful freedom. Another friend (Jeanne Moreau, in what amounts to a cameo) has maintained her bohemian lifestyle, but this too strikes Alain as empty and pointless. Invited to a dinner party hes confronted with the tedious social games of the Dolce Vita crowd, and here the viewer can share his repulsion. Sometimes ones disgust with life is not wholly the result of some mysterious chemical imbalance.
The film is notable for its subtlety, despite the potentially sensational subject matter. Filmed in moody black and white and with Erik Saties seductively forlorn piano music on the sound track, it conjures a feeling of profound sadness without resorting to sentimentality. Malle (who also scripted the film, adapting a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle) doesnt try to explain Alain or even make him particularly sympathetic; rather he presents his plight unflinchingly, right up to the films powerful conclusion.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, at 7 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 25. 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].