Director: Louis Malle
Louis Malle's The Fire Within begins in medias res when we meet the main character, Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet), in a hotel where he has spent the night with a former girl friend. As the film unfolds, more is gradually revealed about Alain. We learn that he is a recovering alcoholic, a patient at what appears to be a very swank private sanatorium in Versailles, just outside Paris. The fees are being paid by his rich wife, who lives in New York and from whom he is separated. When his doctor tells him the cure is complete and it is time to leave, Alain insists he wants to stay at the clinic, that without its regimen to restrain him, he believes he will immediately begin drinking again. Alain's cryptic comments to the doctor about the futility of his life and about death suggest he is suicidally depressed, something which seems quite plain to the viewer but which his doctor dismisses with upbeat platitudes. Later, alone in his room, he opens his brief case, takes out a pistol wrapped in a handkerchief, and contemplates it before putting it back, then walks to the mirror, on which he has written the date July 23, and looks at himself. There can be little doubt about his intentions.
The rest of the film follows Alain through his last day, as he goes to Paris and looks up old friends before returning to the clinic. From these encounters we discover more about him—that he is a writer who is no longer able to write, has been involved in the war in Algeria, has led a dissolute life among rich bohemians, that he invariably rejects suggestions of ways he might repair his life. We also learn that he is well-liked by his friends and that quite a few attractive women—and even some men—find him sexually appealing, while others find his spiritual torpor merely pathetic. Yet even as these details about his life accumulate and our picture of him becomes more complete, one thing is unchanging: our sense of the hopeless, unshakable despair he feels.
While discussions of The Fire Within tend to stress the role of alcoholism in the film, I would say that this is more than a movie about the evils of alcohol. In fact, Alain consistently refuses offers of alcohol and is never shown drunk. In the entire film he takes only one drink, when he furtively gulps down one small glass of cognac that has been left at the next table in a sidewalk cafe. The only effect of the liquor is to make him violently ill. Alain's problems go beyond his dependence on alcohol, which may actually be as much a symptom as a cause—all the way to a pervasive disenchantment with life that colors every moment of the movie. His despair is quite different from both the intellectualized and rather rarefied ennui being explored at the time by Antonioni in films like L'Avventura and L'Eclisse and the almost celebratory alcoholic self-destruction of Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Malle depicts real mental pain here—not melodramatic agonizing, but the quiet resignation of a man whose life has been drained of all hope. The usual diversions that can pull a person out of such a depressive frame of mind or deaden the pain for a while—love, work, intoxicants—no longer have any effect on Alain.
The Fire Within is what might be called a dramatically level film, its lack of strong emotional highs and lows reflecting Alain's own emotional numbness. Rather than dramatic situations, the film presents a series of subdued encounters between Alain and people from his past. In these encounters, his every action makes it obvious that like many intended suicides, he is revisiting his old haunts to say goodbye. Yet only once—when he visits his friend Eva, an artist played with great sympathy in a cameo by Jeanne Moreau—did I feel any real connection between Alain and these people. For the rest, there seems to be an almost palpable sense of estrangement between them and Alain. At one point he figuratively demonstrates the isolation he feels by reaching out to touch the face of one of his friends but stopping with his fingertips just an inch or so away, explaining that he can reach out but can never actually touch another person. It is this terrible sense of psychic solitude that seems to be the genesis of his withdrawal from life.
From beginning to end, the mood of The Fire Within is one of melancholy. Director Louis Malle works in a muted, unemphatic style, avoiding obvious directorial intrusion as he objectively observes Alain's depression without overdramatizing or sentimentalizing Alain's situation. Interestingly, Malle began shooting in color but quickly switched to black and white, a prudent artistic decision that underscores the colorlessness of Alain's life. The sparing use of pensive piano music by Erik Satie also contributes a great deal to the picture's theme of Alain reflecting on his life before ending it.
But the greatest credit for the the film's success must go to Maurice Ronet, whose deeply affecting performance is the movie's core. In a film of such intimate focus on his character that the camera would surely reveal the least trace of dishonesty in his performance, his Alain seems absolutely genuine. Ronet immediately establishes Alain's state of mind (and his state of mind is the movie), somehow externalizing and making visible what is essentially interior and invisible, and then sustains it scene by scene for the duration of the film, surely the most difficult thing for a film actor to do. Ronet completely disappears inside Alain, fusing so thoroughly with him that actor and character become one. Wholly internalized and without gimmickry or actorly mannerisms, this is film acting of the highest order.
Aside from a few flashes of dark humor at the clinic near the beginning, The Fire Within is an unrelievedly somber film. Yet Malle's low-key directing style and Ronet's unsentimental performance, entirely without self-pity, create enough emotional distance to make the movie bearable without making it seem cold or aloof. On the contrary, The Fire Within is a film that in its understated treatment of alcoholism and depression, subjects which could easily have become trite and overwrought, manages in its restraint to be all the more moving.