Directed by Louis Malle
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 108 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: May 13, 2008
Review Date: May 2, 2008
Louis Malle’s bleak, devastating exploration into the psyche of a man on the verge of suicide makes The Fire Within one of his most interesting but seemingly non-commercial ventures. (It actually ended up being a big hit.) This is not a fun film; the long road to the ultimate end is one paved with few laughs and much desolation and angst. And Malle is merciless with the camera, going in on extreme close-ups exploring every millimeter of our main character’s face in search of a flicker of hope, a moment of hesitation about what he plans to do. Alas, none is to be found.
Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet) is a recovering alcoholic having just emerged from four months of drying out in a French rest home. He retains a boyish charm and slightly aging good looks which endear him to the residents and doctors at the clinic, but facing a lack of interest in his writing, the estrangement of his wife Dorothy who’s far away in New York, and a wearying feeling that life has nothing left to offer him besides an endless parade of nameless and faceless women in his bed and the pitying looks of his friends who feel he’s never amounted to anything, he resolves to end his life. The film then focuses on Alain’s last twenty-four hours, a time when he hitches a ride into Paris so he can look up all his old friends and lovers and bid them adieu. Might possibly one of them offer him a reason to continue living? That’s the conflict that propels us from scene to scene.
The succession of unfulfilling encounters Alain has with his Parisian friends are completely mind-numbing both to him and to the viewer, and Malle keeps the camera ever in motion to catch the lack of connection time and again. Malle also repeatedly focuses the camera on mirror images of the characters, as if watching the real people is too painfully raw to endure. There’s a magnificent moment when Alain has finally taken his first drink in months, has become physically sick, and reels around the room almost spastically, filmed in jump cuts (a la Godard) to accentuate his unsteady legs and manner. Throughout, our sympathies remain rooted to Alain as we want him to escape this forced depression and see that there is so much life left to live. His acquaintances, despite meaning well, offer little solace, often remarking how terrible he looks or bringing up embarrassing drunken escapades of his for their own amusement never once thinking that this isn’t in the best interests of a man on shaky psychological ground.
Maurice Ronet is a heartrending Alain, a man-child possessing an instant rapport with the audience who must squirm in their seats and dread each new encounter with an ever-growing fear of inevitability. Bernard Noël plays Alain’s best friend Dubourg with a guarded love for his friend, the one person that seems might make a difference in his ultimate decision. Jeanne Moreau makes a surprise appearance as a former flame who’s descended into drug addiction while Jacques Sereys and Alexandra Stewart play a wealthy couple who are too caught up in their own lavish ways to notice how their friend is suffering.
The Fire Within is no good time at the movies. But as a cinematic psychological profile of a man on the brink of apocalypse, it’s a remarkable film achievement.
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is presented in a superb anamorphic transfer. It’s rare that a black and white film of this vintage looks so pristine, but this is without question one of the greatest transfers in the entire Criterion Collection. Grayscale is so absolutely spot-on that the picture jumps from the screen. Blacks are deep, shadow detail profound, and sharpness in all of the close-ups unparalleled. There is not a single scratch or bit of dirt, and the natural film grain makes for a thrilling movie experience in the home. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is typical for its era. There is a slight hiss which is discernable in the quietest scenes but which most of the time isn’t noticeable. There are a few moments of distortion when voices rise to a raucous level. Other than those distractions, however, the audio track does its job more than adequately.
A 1994 interview with director Louis Malle was conducted a year before the director’s untimely death. In it, he discusses working on the film and the particularly hard time he gave actor Maurice Ronet playing the main character. The 4:3 featurette runs 20 minutes.
A 1964 interview with actor Maurice Ronet includes information about his career before going into acting, the similarity of the roles he had played to himself, and his hopes to direct one day. The 4:3 vignette runs 6 minutes.
“Malle’s Fire Within” is a new video documentary featuring Philippe Collin and Volker Schlöndorff (both assistant directors for Malle) and actress Alexandra Stewart and deals with the filming itself, their impressions of Malle and Ronet’s working relationship, and what they each learned from working with Malle. The anamorphic feature runs 26 ¾ minutes.
Jusqu’au 23 juillet is a 2005 documentary that compares scenes from the film to corresponding sequences from Pierre Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le Feu Follet which was the basis for Malle’s screenplay. Also French actor Mathieu Amalric speaks eloquently about the film’s effect on him and its place in French and world cinema. It is 28 minutes long.
A 21-page booklet contains stills from the movie, an excellent piece on the making of the film by French journalist Michel Ciment, and an illuminating character profile of actor Maurice Ronet by critic Peter Cowie.
Not a feel-good movie in any way, The Fire Within is nevertheless one of the primary masterworks in the Louis Malle canon and one of the more excruciating journeys to oblivion in the history of cinema. It comes highly recommended.