Alain Leroy is a desperately unhappy man, doing his best to keep up the appearance that he is fine. He is one of the many diverse characters Louis Malle has created in his time as a film director.
The Fire Within was one of Malle’s earlier films, somewhat forgotten in the hype of films such as Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers. But it is a true gem of his filmography, and we must be grateful to The Criterion Collection for remastering and releasing it.
A deeply personal work, The Fire Within examines the last days of a man who methodically plans to kill himself on July 23.
Before he does so he decides to revisit all his old friends and family, and attempt to find a reason not to do it. The film opens at the aftermath of a sexual encounter with his lover that was apparently unsuccessful. From the beginning his melancholy is apparent, but Malle does not exaggerate it. Leroy is sad, sure, but not mopey. He is a recovering alcoholic and at times during the film he is teased by alcohol, until he inevitably gives into it again.
Leroy’s last days aren’t full of sadness and sickness, but a growing feeling of tension is apparent, especially if you don’t know where it is leading. Leroy’s plans of suicide aren’t made apparent until the end, leaving the viewer to decided who Leroy is and what his plans are.
The film was originally planned to be shot in colour, but mid-shooting Malle changed his mind, saying the film would have more of an effect and be easier to follow if it were in black and white. These were the last days when black and white shooting was the norm, and Malle used this so that colour would not distract the viewer.
In my eyes, French film has a certain quality and aesthetic when shot in black and white. The French New Wave films were almost all shot in black and white, and I associate revolutionary French cinema with this particular shooting technique, among others. Though most of Malle’s subsequent films were shot in colour, the use of black and white here, for me, has the ultimate effect. Not necessarily in making the film feel more depressing (which I don’t think was Malle’s intention) but rather in portraying Leroy’s saturated emotional view. As he stumbles along the path to suicide, we watch through the black and white filter of his vision, where there is no longer any colour or colourful things, but rather a dark, colourless existence where life has no reason or justice, and Leroy is unable to justify a reason to live.
As the film progresses, its conclusion becomes clear; we understand the symbolism of the gun in his briefcase and the date scrawled on his mirror, but Malle teases the audience toward the end. For a while, we are unsure whether Leroy will be able to do it.
While watching the film I noticed several similarities to Tom Ford’s recent film A Single Man. That film, too, was about the last days of a man who planned to commit suicide, but there are several areas where it failed that The Fire Within succeeds. For one, nowhere near enough films deal with people like Alain Leroy in such a serious, realistic manner. Leroy wants to kill himself, and he is able. He gives the world a chance to stop him, but they do not intervene; in fact, they push him toward his fate. The people around him that he knows, do not want him to die, but his unhappiness with them blinds his ability to see that. He sees no reason to live; if he is let out of the place he is staying, he knows that sooner or later he’ll descend into alcoholism again. He has no choice but to die.
Malle’s belief is not necessarily that the world is an awful, cruel place, but that it is not a place for all. Alcoholism, addiction and depression can lead to despair, and Malle’s criticisms are that the world is not forgiving and that if you don’t live your life well there is no point in living.
The film may seem dark, depressing and saddening, and at times it is, but I think it is also very important. There are lessons to be learned here about the darkness humanity can harbor, and unlike so many films before and after it, The Fire Within does not exaggerate a single detail, and that is what makes it unique and powerful.
Seen this film? Does it intrigue you? Leave a comment below!