Review: The Fire Within

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.

My Rating:

 Average Rating:

Seen this film? Does it intrigue you? Leave a comment below!

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Posted on August 17, 2011, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Excellent.

    For my two cents, it’s the most realistic, unflinching view of alcoholism and depression ever put to celluloid. Others have tried; some have even been successful; but not in this way, not with this magnitude.

    And then there’s the slight New Wave stuff- the prolonged shot of Alain as he falls off the wagon, the quick pans around the room at the party, the odd tight cropped claustrophobic opening scene. Unlike, say, Godard, Malle doesn’t beat anyone over the head with it. But it’s there and it helps move the film along.

    I also applaud that Malle makes no judgements about his protag, which almost always happens (implicitly) in films that deal with suicide. Hell, Malle’s protag is an extension of himself, so much so that he dressed Ronet in his Malle’s clothes.

    The Erik Satie score- the minimalist somber piano all over the movie- seems like it was made for this movie. I could blather on and on about this movie all day.

    • I did love the film, and for all those reasons. It’s definitely one I’ll have to rewatch at some point. You should write something about it on your site! It is, after all, your favourite film.

  2. what a great review tyler. i don’t think i’ve seen any malle tbh but i might now. the storyline sounds familiar as if i have seen the movie but don’t quite recall all of the details. can you think of other movies with similar storylines that i might have it confused with? i know i havent seen a single man yet (thanks for the spoiler!) so it’s not that one.

    • If I recall, Mike Myers’ “The Love Guru” had a similar plot.

      Joking aside, I suppose “Leaving Las Vegas” is kind of comparable on a very basic level.

  3. Lovely write up my friend.

    I haven’t (surprisingly huh?) seen this but it sounds like a very good watch. I will keep an eye out for it in my local shop!

    S

  4. Great review. I’ve just discovered an appreciation for Malle, and this is one on my soon to be watched list.

    • He’s definitely a great filmmaker. I have seen Elevator to the Gallows, The Lovers, Murmur of the Heart and Au Revoir les Enfants as well as this. They’re all great films so I’m making an effort to watch more. Thanks for stopping by!

  1. Pingback: NEW WAVE WEEK! Day 2: Louis Malle « Southern Vision

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