An alcoholic contemplates suicide in Louis Malle’s devastating 1963 film about the human desire for meaning.
Louis Malle was a director of astonishing range. He did so many different kinds of films that critics have tended to underappreciate him, because they can’t put him in a neat little category. My favorite of his films is one of his earliest—the 1963 poetic drama The Fire Within.
The story concerns Alain, an alcoholic in his mid-20s played by Maurice Ronet, who has just dried out at a clinic in Versailles. His American wife has left him, and when the film opens he has just slept with her best friend, who loves him but can’t commit fully to staying with him. Although the clinic’s chief doctor pronounces him well, he knows better, sees no future, and decides to commit suicide. But before that, he goes to Paris and visits all of his old friends.
No one seems to have heard of AA in 1963 Paris (perhaps it really hadn’t established itself in Europe yet). In any case, alcohol is only a symptom of Alain’s problem. With a marvelously patient and precise style, Malle portrays the quiet, corrosive effect of self-hatred on a young man of intelligence and charm. Alain is selfish and spoiled, but increasingly conscious of a void inside, an inability to fully engage with others, a flaw of which he is painfully aware, and this makes him deserving of our sympathy.
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.
Later, as Alain wanders through Paris, we meet an assortment of types, all vividly conveyed, as if with quick brushstrokes (Jeanne Moreau turns up briefly in one scene), and each expressing a different kind of self-involvement. There is nothing contemptuous about Malle’s treatment of these friends — they are mostly ordinary, decent people in their own way, but in Alain’s restless mind they reflect the despair and lack of meaning he feels inside.
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 is soft without being hazy; the Erik Satie piano music punctuates the main character’s journey with fleeting notes of melancholy.
The Fire Within failed at the box office, and 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.