The Fire Within

Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963) is a masterful film whose existential malaise never overtakes its cinematic beauty. The film — which is based on a novel, by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, of the same name as the movie’s original title, Le Feu Follet — follows a recovering alcoholic’s swelling disenchantment with life. From the opening scene, in which the main character, Alain Leroy, gazes upon the face of his mistress in a doomed effort to grasp the quintessence of her identity, the movie’s grown-up tone is set. But although Alan wears a tie and fastidiously employs the formal mode of address (“vous”) even with his confidants, he is a man who is uneasy with the pressures of adulthood. (Indeed, Malle makes us feel the weight of something as seemingly benign as cashing a check at the bank.) Early in the picture, we see that Alain has forebodingly written the date July 23 on the mirror in his room at the medical clinic where he is undergoing rehab. When one considers the many points of correspondence that both the film and the novel share with its creators, the mirror becomes a potent symbol of the story’s intimate atmosphere: The book was inspired by the suicide of La Rochelle’s friend the Dadaist poet Jacques Rigaut. La Rochelle would later go on to end his own life. The actor who plays Alain, Maurice Ronet, was himself given to drink. Furthermore, not only did Malle give Ronet his own clothes to wear during the shoot; he also gave him his own pistol to use. Watching this film, I couldn’t help but recall Albert Camus’s unforgettable postulation, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” The Fire Within treats this theme with the surpassing intelligence and empathy demanded by such a subject.