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Saturday, 27 October 2007

The Fire Within (1963) Louis Malle

Louis Malle never wanted to make the same film twice. This is my fifth and none of them are remotely anything like any of the others. So far I've seen a caper movie, a film about stardom, a film noir and a zany surreal comedy. Now I'm watching a stark drama about suicide. Now, not of all these films were successes in my mind: two were merely average and I may have stretched to get that high up the scale.

The lead is Maurice Ronet who had been so great in Elevator to the Gallows. He was a ladies man there, helping Jeanne Moreau's character cheat on her husband. Here though we first see him in bed with his mistress Lydia, in a touching scene where he completely fails to finish the job at hand. He's Alain Leroy, something of a legend in the right circles but obviously deeply unhappy. his mistress cares enough to give him money and still want to marry him, even though he lives in some sort of voluntary sanitarium for rest cures. He's apparently there to cure him of alcoholism and everyone except himself believes that he's cured.

However he's still suffering from depression, he cuts out morbid stories from the newspapers and meditates on suicide with a gun he keeps in his room. He's made his mind up on that front and even has the date written on his mirror, but he has the timetable defined to more detail than that. He has one last day to visit Paris, which he can't bear to do under normal circumstances, and visit people from his past to say goodbye. Their stories, depicting how they've changed, fill in our understanding of who Alain really is.

This is a highly melancholic film, as much a depiction of addiction as The Lost Weekend, but from a completely different angle. Alain has already lost his battle with drink, but just hasn't quite died yet and he knows precisely when he's going to make it happen. The soundtrack, solo piano gymnopedies by Erik Satie, is utterly perfect and enhances the mood amazingly. The acting is uniformly fine, especially from Ronet but it's the material that's the key here, not the performances. The performances just grant the material greater effect.

It's far from the usual drama we're used to from Hollywood, because it's all about moral ambiguity, something to shy away from in the States at this point in time. Alain is our hero, but he's a suicidal alcoholic, hardly someone to root for. We see Alain's fellow residents at the sanitarium, all presumably sick people, we see his former friends and acquaintances, all presumably perfectly well. The catch is that we can't tell the difference between them. Essentially they're all people and any artificial barriers we put up to differentiate them are just that: artificial. One to think about and to admire, but it's a depressing thing to watch.

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