Director: Louis Malle
Writer: Pierre Drieu La Rochelle
Reviewer: Rich Jevons
The Time Frames strand at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival presents a wide-ranging selection of films from the past and present, all taking place within 24 hours. The first of these is a classic of French cinema directed by Louis Malle, The Fire Within.
It sees a terrific performance by Maurice Ronet as Alain Leroy, a writer hell-bent on self-destruction after treatment in a rehab in Versailles. It begins with a love scene in extreme close-up where we see him with his lover Lydia ( a sensual Léna Skerla), who has to return to New York to her designer job. That is where his wife Dorothy is based, though we never see her in the film, just letters, telegrams and his friends’ descriptions of her.
Ronet’s depiction of a deep depression is completely candid, and his character lives up to the lifestyle described by such French existentialists as Sartre and Camus. He admits to Lydia that, “Paris scares me,” and he likes the safety and sense of family he finds in the clinic. However, she gives him a fat cheque and so he leaves his shelter in Versailles for a trip to Paris.
His break with sobriety, although he tries so hard, is almost inevitable, and his visits to old friends in the city only seem to make things worse. When he meets the mystic ‘prophet’ Dubourg (Bernard Noël) he admits: “I wanted you to help me die.” And with an old flame, he goes to her at her gallery he confesses: “I came to say goodbye.”
After a coffee with some Algerian terrorists, newly out of prison, he watches passersby until finally his will weakens and he picks up a drink. Upstairs in the toilet, he stares at himself in the mirror, full of fear and self-loathing. A fellow diner says: “Look at that face. Alcohol.” Crossing the road carelessly he is nearly killed, and then at his visit to another former lover, Solange (Alexandra Stewart), he shows himself up at a dinner party.
Finally, back at the clinic, we see him bizarrely arranging his possessions and shaving before his last act. Although a pretty bleak experience, Ronet’s performance carries you all the way. And you really do want him to find a way out, even if the end is inevitable. Malle says it was “the first of his films he was completely happy with,” and quite rightly so given the masterful direction and Ghislain Cloquet’ s stunning cinematography.
Reviewed on 2nd November 2018