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FIRE WITHIN, THE (Le Feu Follet)(director/writer: Louis Malle; screenwriter: from the book by Pierre Drieu LaRochelle; cinematographer: Ghislain Cloquet; editors: Suzanne Baron/Monique Nana; music: Erik Satie; cast: Maurice Ronet (Alain Leroy), Lena Skerla (Lydia), Yvonne Clech (Mademoiselle Farnoux), Hubert Deschamps (D’Avereau), Jeanne Moreau (Jeanne), Alexandra Stewart (Solange), Jean-Paul Moulinot (Dr. La Barbinais), Bernard Noel (Dubourg); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alain Queffelean; Nouvellis editions de Films; 1963-France-in French with English subtitles)
“One of Louis Malle’s finest early films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The novel by Pierre Drieu LaRochelle was based on the life and death of surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut, who killed himself in 1929. Drieu LaRochelle committed suicide himself in 1945. This fascinating and compassionate film plays as one of Louis Malle’s finest early films. It chronicles the last 24 hours in the life of Alain Leroy (Ronet), his character is based on the writer Jacques Rigaut, an alcoholic in his thirties receiving treatment for his problem in a private sanitarium after a nervous breakdown. His wealthy estranged American wife in New York has paid for a cure at the Versailles clinic, though she’s still upset with him because of his affair with Lydia (Lena Skerla). No one can see the dangerous point that Alain has reached including his doctor (Moulinot), who allows him to leave the clinic without further treatment. He goes to Paris the next morning and has lunch with old friends, a rendezvous in a cafe with other friends and receives an invite to a dinner party. To his displeasure his old friends are still leading an empty life and have strayed from their youthful ideals. Dubourg (Noel) has abandoned his ideals for Egyptology and marriage, Jeanne (Moreau) hangs out with drug-users, and the wealthy guests at Solange’s (Stewart) bourgeois dinner-party are smug in their right-wing views. What no one realizes, is how unbearable life has become for him and that he’s obsessed with the idea of suicide and is in such a fragile state of mind. Alain plans to end his life on July 23. The time spent in Paris that day is his last attempt to see if he can shake off his desperation and find a reason to live. He fails but succeeds in killing himself.

This absorbing unsentimental film is profound in its portrayal of the artist, superbly acted by Ronet in an understated and subtle manner. It shows how compromise has become a way of life for those survivors threading their way through adult life but not for the poet, who refuses to give up the ideals he always stood for. Malle paints a bitter-sweet portrait of Parisian society, and how the poet refused to go back to that superficial life. The result is a superior film, whose bleak depiction of the artist is nevertheless a truthful and ultimately a satisfying one that allows the viewer to begin to grasp the inner pains he was going through that led him to make such a drastic decision. The film’s title The Fire Within, tells it all.

It was the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1963.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”