Judge Gordon Sullivan is taking the resting cure. He doesn't have any habits or illnesses; he just likes to rest.
"I don't find it funny to sleep on a tomb when it's so easy to open it and sleep inside."
I first saw Louis Malle work his magic in Elevator to the Gallows. I remember the scenes in the titular elevator as some of the most tense I'd ever witnessed. Unlike someone like Jules Dassin, Malle was famous not for his tense thrillers but for his searing psychological portraits, such as Murmurs of the Heart and Au revoir les enfants. Because of this, I was looking forward to seeing The Fire Within. Criterion has done Malle right in the past, and this release continues that trend with an excellent audiovisual presentation and informative extras.
Facts of the Case
Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet, Nada) is a recovering alcoholic whose estranged wife has left him in Versailles to take a resting cure while she stays in New York. When she sends a friend to check up on him, it sets in motion a plan Alain seems to have had for a while. When she departs, Alain decides to leave his asylum and go to Paris to meet up with friends from the old days. He seems desperate for a human connection, and, by the end of the day, the audience will see how desperate he is.
Louis Malle wasn't really a part of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd. He just happened to make bold, groundbreaking films in France in the 1960s around the same time as the likes of Godard and Truffaut. From the tense, Miles Davis-scored Elevator to the Gallows to the borderline obscenity (at least in America) of The Lovers, Malle was unafraid to take on controversial subjects. In the same vein, The Fire Within (Le feu follet in French) gives us a haunting portrait of a man pushed to the edge. If Thoreau was right that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, then The Fire Within is about a man who spends a day deciding how quiet and desperate his life really is.
The Fire Within is beautifully photographed, and one of the most compulsively watchable films I've ever seen. Everything from the smooth contrast of the black-and-white film to the rich set design provides something to please the eye. I can't put my finger on why, but there's something about Malle's framing that feels like he's leading me on, drawing me deeper into Alain's world. It's not a particularly flashy film, visually speaking (in fact, austere comes more to mind), but there's a richness to the visuals that makes this film worth a look on their merit alone.
Maurice Ronet's performance as Alain is also enough to recommend the film. Perched somewhere between the menace of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless and the effortless cool of Alain Delon in Le Samourai, Ronet's Alain shows signs of a man who was cool once (he was a writer in New York, after all) but who has since fallen on hard times (it's no accident that we can glimpse the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald on Alain's desk). He embodies world weariness and fatalism, but also seems tied to his past and his friends. It's a complex and fascinating performance of a conflicted character. The rest of the cast are fine as well, doing a good job conveying the fact that they knew Alain before he took the cure (or, in the case of his doctor, while he took the cure).
The film constantly evokes leaving, death, and suicide, and the ending to The Fire Within lives up to those themes with a powerful and haunting finish.
Criterion presents The Fire Within in a fantastic package. The video is almost entirely clear of print damage, and there is only a light smattering of very natural-looking grain. The image might be a bit soft here and there, but overall the detail is strong. The mono audio is a little rough around the edges, with some occasional slight distortion, but overall it conveys the dialogue and sparse music effortlessly.
The extras begin with the usual booklet, this time containing an informative historical piece on the making of the film by Michel Ciment as well as a discussion/appreciation of Maurice Ronet by the critic/historian Peter Cowie. Both are interesting and well-written. Criterion also gives us an excerpt from a 1994 interview with Malle (one of his last) where he discusses the film. He discusses the genesis of the film, its source, as well as his relationship with star Maurice Ronet. Maurice is also seen in interview footage from 1966. The interview discusses his life as an actor in general, and he's obviously proud of his participation in The Fire Within. Continuing the interview theme, Criterion conducted interviews with actress Alexandra Stewart and filmmakers Phillipe Collin and Volker Schlöndorf for this release. The three discuss Malle's films with affection and authority, giving a personal touch to the history surrounding his films. Finally, "Jusqu'ua 23 juillet" spends 30 minutes comparing The Fire Within to its literary predecessor with interviews from filmmakers, authors, and critics. It's an interesting look at the inspiration for Malle's film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Alain is obviously a bit of a screw-up. He apparently had it made, with a career and a wife in New York, but couldn't stay away from drink. The troubles of a middle-class white guy might not hold much interest for some viewers; if you consider some of the political tumult of France during the period, a film focused on the personal problems of a particular man might seem extravagant and unnecessary. The film makes some subtle points about politics, but this very subtlety might offend some who are used to the more overt political antics of the later '60s.
Also, this is a slow, character-driven film, not exactly brimming with narrative drive. Malle doesn't try to hurry towards a conclusion or even try to show us exactly where the film might be going (if you didn't read the plot synopsis, there's nothing in the film to really indicate that it's going to take place over twenty-four hours). If you're not into this kind of film, especially a foreign one, steer clear of The Fire Within.
The Fire Within is a harrowing portrait of a man who's reached the end of his rope. That sounds like the recipe for a melodramatic disaster, but Malle's film instead opts of austerity and a penetrating examination of the kind of existence that leads to such a crisis. The Fire Within is not a fun film to watch, but it is a rewarding one. In their usual fashion, Criterion gives us another great DVD presentation of a classic film.
Not guilty. Hopefully Criterion will bring more of Malle's films (especially The Silent World) to light in the near future.
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Scales of Justice
• Interviews with director Louis Malle and actor Maurice Ronet
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