903 (44). Le feu follet / The Fire Within / Will o' the Wisp (1963, Louis Malle)

screened Friday January 25 2008 at the IFC Center, New York TSPDT rank #929 IMDb Wiki

Though it would be extremely gauche for the IFC to mention this, their programming of The Fire Within this weekend (as part of an ongoing screening series of Louis Malle films) couldn't be more eerily well-timed, occurring only days after the shocking death and alleged suicide of actor Heath Ledger. As it seems with the tragic case of Ledger, the film's protagonist, Alain Leroy, is recently divorced, struggling with substance abuse, ensconced in a milieu of affluent socialites and yet thoroughly alienated from all of them. Watching the onscreen behavior of one self-destructive mind presented the temptation to link it to another's.

Perhaps putting that much demand for insight on the film unfairly led to my initial disappointment following the screening. The film is compelling for much of its length, with Malle employing a cool observational approach, objectively following Alain as he checks out of a sanitarium and wanders from one friend to another, searching in vain for a true sense of connection and meaning. But offsetting the cinema verite approach are slick cutting techniques and a proto-jazz Eric Satie piano score that make the film at times resemble a cologne commercial for morbid despondents.

A gradual frustration sets in as the succession of encounters between Alain and his friends touch slight variations on the same note of bourgeois alienation: an academic comfortably settled in Egyptology and marriage as his domestic refuges; an artist (Jeanne Moreau) holed up in a shambling estate with a commune of drug addicts; and two brothers involved in vague left-wing political activities against the government. Alain's vague, cursory exchanges with his friends is commendable for its anti-expository naturalism, but it doesn't do quite enough to fulfill the ostensible argument of the film, that Alain's suicide is justifiable; and the overall regard towards all of these individuals and their lifestyle choices feels underdeveloped. Thus in the penultimate moments ,when Alain reflects, "I can't reach out with my hands - i can't touch things - and when i do touch things - i feel nothing" it feels like a premature conclusion, or at best, a self-fulfilling farce.

However, going through my notes I recall that one of the recurring visual fascinations of this film is its preoccupation with people's gazes, particularly at Alain. The film opens with Alain gazing at his lover-of-the-moment, a friend of his estranged wife, as Acquarello describes them, "struggling to decipher the elusive meaning beneath the wistful, attentive eyes, lingering beyond the point of reassuring tenderness to where the potentiality of the moment of connection has irretrievably slipped away, and all that is left is the inscrutable, opaque gaze." From that point the film casts a consistent focus on people as both the lookers and the looked upon. Virtually every woman looks like they stepped off the pages of Vogue, and the way the camera casts carefully framed attention on them, the film's technique partakes in the very objectification and classification of human presences that its protagonist rails against in his search for genuineness.  Every other person in this movie, from a girl at a bookstore to a boy in a bathroom, cast teasing, enigmatic looks of interest at Alain -- expressions of interest that are simultaneously charged with sensual energy and yet predicated on a superficial recognition of humanity that our hero thoroughly rejects.

I think this paradox, that humans' attentions in each other, their gazes, their advances, can be full of energy and vitality and simultaneously empty and dehumanizing, is a substantial line of investigation offered by the film (moreso than its insights into the suicidal mind), and one worth considering in the wake of Heath Ledger's death and the subsequent mass wave of interest bestowed upon him. Suddenly a life taken for granted is held up to intense scrutiny in a collective search for meaning behind its death. I found several images of Ledger online that I'm posting here, each suggesting a different side to him, a hint of an insight here and there behind an expression, giving way to an underlying unknowability; images that say something and nothing, except perhaps our own impulse to consume them. In this regard, Le Feu Follet, with its protagonist buckling under a world where he and everyone around him amount to image consumption objects, may be considered a film ahead of its time.

Want to go deeper?

Le feu follet was mentioned in the following lists considered by TSPDT:

Allen Eyles in Sight & Sound (1982) Barbara Schweizerhof in Steadycam (2007) Gerhard Midding in Steadycam (2007)

In its Louis Malle tribute section, Turner Classic Movies features an informative essay by David Sterritt on The Fire Within. An excerpt:

Long after making it, Malle remarked that with The Fire Within he finally managed to find a cinematic style—objective, unobtrusive, no frills—that ideally matched the content of the story he was telling. One obvious reason is that he’d learned from the previous pictures he’d directed, but another must be his huge emotional involvement in the picture. Malle felt so close to both the real Maurice Ronet and the fictional Alain Leroy that he filled Alain’s hospital-room closet with his own clothing, and even his own gun. “I was Alain Leroy,” he remarked in the interview book Malle on Malle, a good source of information on the film. Although this was his fifth narrative feature, it was the first he was completely happy with.

“Malle has effected something phenomenal, having turned literature into film, photographed the meaning of an unsubstantial, touching and rather famous book, and given its tragic intention a clarity it never achieved in print.”

- Jean Genet on The Fire Within, quoted in CineFile Video

If Mr. Malle's approach seems elliptical and a mite arty at first there is little doubt that his exposé is effectively Proustian in its verbal flashbacks to the hero's tortured past... As a lost soul, he explains at great and anguished length that he cannot stand mediocrity and the bourgeois life, that he can "see" and "touch" the women and men who profess to care for him but that he cannot really love them well enough. And that, too, is largely the film's problem.

A viewer can appreciate the delicate exploration of Alain Leroy's mind and heart but he is so special a case that it is extremely difficult to relate to his highly special tragic condition. One is often more attracted to the loving or well-meaning people who are seriously anxious to aid and comfort him.

A.H. Weiler, from New York Times review, February 18 1964

The film is a triumph of style. It is quiet and indicative. It doesn't explain a lot, but we understand a lot about it all the same. And in the concerned, indifferent, kind, cruel behavior of his friends, we see ourselves acting toward people like him, or acted toward by people like them. Rarely does a film so carefully portray this complexity of personal relationships.

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, October 16, 1969

Arguably the finest of Malle's early films, this is a calmly objective but profoundly compassionate account of the last 24 hours in the life of a suicide. Ronet gives a remarkable, quietly assured performance as the alcoholic who, upon leaving a clinic, visits old friends in the hope that they will provide him with a reason to live. They don't, and Malle's achievement lies not only in his subtle but clear delineation of his protagonist's emotions but in his grasp of life's compromises; his portrait of Parisian society is astringent, never facile. A small gem, polished to perfection by an unassuming professional.

- Geoff Andrew, Time Out

From the opening sequence of an immobile Alain studying the face of his silent lover as an off-screen narrator provides the contextual interior monologue to encapsulate the depth of his despair in his inability to connect beyond physical intimacy, Louis Malle establishes an intrinsic disjunction that reflects Alain's emotional inertia and ambivalence following his figurative catharsis and rebirth. Visually, Malle reinforces this sense of stasis through Alain's enigmatically encircled, handwritten date on his bureau mirror that commemoratively reads "July 23" and a string of photographic proofs tacked onto the walls of his private room at the clinic, documenting a logical progression of images (perhaps of his estranged wife) even as each representational frame is static and immutable. Malle further incorporates recurring imagery of relative motion as a near-still Alain is juxtaposed against people (and objects) in accelerated motion: navigating through a maze of speeding cars to cross busy streets, walking out into the unexpected sight of a cycling race that momentarily whisks by in front of the hotel, observing a crowd of people walking (and driving) past as he sits in the café, having been left behind by the Minville brothers as they plot to embed themselves for a covert operation in the Spanish underground. Through his figurative stasis and tabula rasa, Alain serves as an incisive reference point for the profound social and cultural turmoil of his environment, a foil for the carefree idealism of his generation that has transfigured into complacency, resignation, hedonism, violence, and self-destruction. It is this profound desolation that is inevitably captured in the film's haunted postscript, a desire to erase the tainted illusion and restore to the purity of the ideal ...the first gaze.

- Acquarello, Strictly Film School

Another reason why the film works so well is the exceptional contribution from its leading actor, the magnificent Maurice Ronet. Malle originally intended giving the part of the suicidal writer Leroy to a non-professional actor, but finally settled on Maurice Ronet, a personal friend and a great actor. Le Feu follet sees Ronet give his most captivating and well-judged performance – his portrayal is fascinating but not wholly sympathetic. Part of the genius of this film is that Malle doesn't require us to like his protagonist. Indeed, the film would lose much of its meaning and impact if Ronet played Leroy as an attractive or even pathetic character. The rationale for Leroy's suicide is apparent early on in the film, so the trajectory is pretty certain. In a sense, the character is already dead when the film begins.

- James Travers, Filmsdefrance.com

Ronet's performance is a tremendous achievement. With sensitive body language, especially with his sad, haunting eyes, and hardly any dialogue, he embodies this lonely character, and his quest for a reason to live, with total assurance. A long early scene in the clinic, with Ronet alone in his room wandering about, talking a little bit to himself while handling various objects, smoking, and looking at pictures, is a masterpiece of intuitive expression, both by Ronet and Malle, who lets the sequence unfold with a breathtaking lack of concern for traditional niceties...

Rarely does one see a film's theme matched so perfectly with its form. The style is both dryly laconic and pregnant with meaning -- revealing depths through what is not said, not done, but only felt, as it were, in the spaces between the characters. The black-and-white photography (Ghislain Cloquet) is soft without being hazy; the Erik Satie piano music punctuates the main character's journey with fleeting notes of melancholy. The film failed at the box office, and is rarely seen. Malle said that it was too sad a picture to succeed with audiences. This is a bleak film, to be sure, but not enervating -- it has the bracing vigor and intelligence of tragic poetry.

- Chris Dashiell, Cinescene

"We had to do a lot of restoration work on 'The Fire Within.' Louis often talked of it as the most important and personal film he made up until then, though when he looked at it 20 or 30 years later, it seemed banal. I think that that kind of 30-year-old depression and crisis is something that maybe in later life you look at a little differently. But being in my early 30s," Manuel says with a laugh, "it resonates. It's one of my favorites, along with 'Lacombe, Lucien' (1974)."

- Manuel Malle, son of Louis Malle, interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle


The Fire Within is available on DVD as part of the Louis Malle Vol. 1 Region 2 Four Disc set containing Elevator to the Gallows, The Lovers, Zazie dans le metro and The Fire Within

DVD Beaver review with the tech analysis you've come to expect from Gary Tooze & Co.

DVD Times review

About Louis Malle

IMDb page

Wikipedia biography

Film Reference.com featuring critical biographical essay by John Baxter

TSPDT entry has assembled several quotes about Malle:

"A critic remarked of one of Malle's last films that it was lovely to look at, but lacked narrative drive. That was not always true of the rich variety of work turned out by this French director, but it became increasingly so since the early 1970s...Malle made a gloriously wide variety of films, underlining his own attempts to escape categorization and his denial of the 'auteur' theory." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"As the cresting new wave battered at the restrictions of conventional narrative technique, Malle created a personal style, sexual and emotional which was to sustain him while flashier colleagues failed. Of the new wave survivors, he is the most old-fashioned, the most erotic, and arguably, the most widely successful...If Truffaut turned into the René Clair of the new French cinema, Malle may yet become its Max Ophüls." - John Baxter (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Although he began to work at the same time as the New Wave directors, he was a speculative, conventional talent: sophisticated and polished, but moving rather aimlessly from one subject to another, only rarely discovering more than entertainment in his films. Too often, his choice of material was overambitious or fashionable, and his working out of human situations melodramatic. At worst, he had a taste for glossy, commercial packages that masquerade as artiness, and it seemed reasonable to regard him as the successor to such proficient but shallow directors as Autant-Lara and Duvivier." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"A workmanlike director who is always competent and sometimes brilliant. His Lacombe, Lucien (73) is a humanistic masterpiece of the 1970s, another Open City." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"Filmmakers don't work for posterity. We create with celluloid and chemical pigments that don't last very long. They fade away. In 200 years there will be nothing left of our work but dust." - Louis Malle

OF all the qualities that make an artist great, or even good, simple curiosity must be the most underrated. In the late 1950's, when the young Louis Malle was beginning his filmmaking career, his restless, searching temperament served him well at first: at 23 he was a co-director (with Jacques-Yves Cousteau) of an undersea documentary, "Silent World" (1956), which won an Oscar and the Palme d'Or at Cannes; two years later, his first dramatic features - a tricky thriller called "Elevator to the Gallows" and an unabashedly romantic tale of provincial adultery called "The Lovers" - were among the earliest and biggest commercial successes of his generation of French filmmakers, soon to be known as the New Wave. But his curiosity quickly got the better of him: after that promising start, he promptly set about his true life's work, which was to look at the world around him as hard as he could, and to keep his creative identity from becoming too solid, too well defined. "You see the world much better through the camera," he once said, and he wouldn't let anything, even his own personality, block the view...

Less sympathetic critics - the French ones, especially - have found Malle's conscious eclecticism suspect, even a little distasteful: one recent New Wave history refers to his "fevered search for a style"; another haughtily dismisses him as "an intelligent producer, but an uneven auteur." What Malle was in fact searching for was not a single style that would define him as an acceptable auteur, but, in every case, for the particular style appropriate to each of the many objects of his serial curiosity. Critics and scholars often prefer artists to have obsessions rather than wide-ranging interests; it makes the work easier to write about. But moviegoers don't necessarily share that prejudice. They've always known that the right way to see Louis Malle's movies is the way he made them: one at a time.

- Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times, June 19, 2005, on the 2005 Malle retrospective at Lincoln Center. Also see related article by Jessica Winter for the Village Voice

Biography at filmsdefrance.com

Article by Stuart Klawans in The Nation (requires subscription)