Director Louis Malle's adaptation of novelist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's The Fire Within is a grim character study. Expertly directed and brilliantly acted, it features Maurice Ronet in the lead role of Alain Leroy, a thirty-something Parisian author who fell a little too far into the bottle for his own good. He finds himself tossed into a treatment center in Versailles courtesy of his wife, who lives overseas in New York City. She decides to send a mutual acquaintance to check in on him and make sure that he's doing alright, and she's relived to learn that the doctors have decided that Alain is well enough to be discharged. While all seems well on the surface, Alain is far from mentally fit, in fact he's just as miserable and depressed as he's always been only now he doesn't have the booze to numb the pain.
He heads back to Paris and meets up with a couple of old friends but nothing is really clicking for him and he's more or less resigned himself to taking his own life in twenty-four hours' time. With that in mind, why shouldn't he reunite with a few pals and maybe have one last fling or two before he ends it all?
Almost clinical in its execution, The Fire Within benefits immensely from Ronet's chillingly believable performance as the tortured former socialite who is just about ready to give it all up. He's pushed his wife away with his drinking and most of his friends as well and he knows he has only himself to blame. He's self destructive in the worst kind of way and we have no problem believing and to a very strong degree understanding his suicidal tendencies.
Working wonderfully in conjunction with Ronet's lead performance is Malle's careful and calculated direction. The picture is deliberately paced and perfectly edited in such a way that it really allows Alain's story to unfold in a very desperate manner. The audience, like Alain, is left waiting for something, anything, to put the spark back into his bane existence. This creates a fair bit of honest tension and palpable atmosphere at times reaching an almost existential level. Malle's Paris is an empty, lifeless city offering Alain nothing of substance to make his life appealing any longer. The city's dense population fares no better, they offer nothing of interest to Alain, and we see this through the various hollow interactions that Malle puts Alain through. Eric Satie's score compliment's the beautiful black and white cinematography very nicely as well.
The result is a fascinating and genuinely bittersweet picture that shows how far one person can fall despite the best efforts of those around him to put him on the straight and narrow. Alain knows his friends and lovers went on with out him during his time in the clinic and he knows that if he kills himself they'll go on without him again. The film winds up asking more questions than it answers but is an engrossing and rewarding experience never the less.The DVD
Criterion presents The Fire Within in a nice 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation with black bars on the left and right hand side of the frame. The black and white image is nice and crisp and while it does show a bit of very natural looking film grain and the odd small speck of print damage here and there, for the most part it is a very clean, clear image. There aren't any problems with edge enhancement or mpeg compression artifacts nor is there an overabundance of aliasing or shimmering effects. This is a very film like transfer with a lot of foreground and background detail in it that leaves very little to complain about.Sound:
The French language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack comes with optional white subtitles in English only. The audio here is fine and the Mono track gets everything done without breaking too much of a sweat. Dialogue stays clear and the score is well balanced. There isn't any noticeable hiss nor is there any distortion and for an older film, The Fire Within sounds just fine on this DVD.Extras:
Extras on the DVD include a brief text biography of Louis Malle, which leads into a twenty minute interview recorded for German television with journalist Angelika Wittlich shortly before his passing in 1995. Malle talks about The Fire Within and why he cast Maurice Ronet, about how he went into a midlife crisis in his mid-thirties, and about the film's interesting camera work. Malle refers to himself as a classicist, how he respects unity of place, unity of time and unity of action in his work and he talks about why he chose to focus his career on more personal subjects rather than try to shoot a sweeping epic. Interesting stuff.
Up next is an interview with Maurice Ronet originally shot for a French television show entitled Portrait D'Acteur to promote his first film as a director, Le Voleur De Tibidabo in 1966. The black and white interview allows Ronet to talk about how he got his start as an actor after not really knowing what to do with his life. He talks about his work on films like Purple Moon and The Fire Within, and about some of the characters in his own feature film. He discusses the cultural impact of the generation gap and the French crisis of faith, and how he personally feels it's important to believe in something. This is a pretty personal interview and it's interesting to see Ronet really open up about his work, though he denies that he was obsessed with suicide during the filming of The Fire Within.
Malle's Fire Within is a collection of interviews wherein actress Alexandra Stewart and filmmakers Philippe Collin and Volker Schlondorff talk about the making of Malle's picture. They discuss how and why admiring Malle's films can be difficult and how The Fire Within was obviously a very cathartic and personal picture for him. There are a lot of pertinent clips and stills here used to illustrate various points and add a bit of flare to the proceedings but what this really boils down to is a trio of qualified experts expressing their admiration for a very unusual and atypical film and its director. It's a very nice and fitting tribute to Malle and his work.
Jusqu'Au 23 Jullet is a 2005 documentary from director Noel Simsolo that draws some interesting comparisons between The Fire Within and it's source, the novel Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Actor Mathieu Amalric, writer Didier Daeninckx, and Cannes Festival curator Pierre-Henri Deleau all show up on camera to discuss the differences between the two different versions of the story in this twenty-nine minute segment that sheds some light on the novel that Malle used as the inspiration for his picture.
Some stylish menus and chapter selection options round out the disc's supplements.
Inside the keepcase is a full color booklet that includes a chapter listing, credits for the film, an essay entitled Day Of The Deadby Michael Ciment, a second essay entitled Pale Fire from writer Peter Cowie, and a list of DVD production credits.Final Thoughts:
Criterion has done an outstanding job on the presentation here from the extras to the transfer and the film itself is an excellent and fascinating look at one man's self destructive tendencies and inner demons. It's a dark, personal film to be sure but it's exceptionally well made and well acted and this release comes highly recommended.