Posted by Greg Ferrara on November 21, 2012
When movies deal with addiction and/or depression, there’s usually an abundance of histrionics put in play to drive the point home. Especially with addiction, the standard operating procedure seems to be 1) show early stages of drug abuse/alcoholism slowly destroying character’s life 2) move into life-now-destroyed mode and, finally, 3) reflection upon addiction with possible recovery. It’s not that that’s a bad way of going about it and many movies, from The Days of Wine and Roses and Clean and Sober to Drugstore Cowboy and Leaving Las Vegas, have all used that formula with great success while having the imagination to step outside it just enough to make a difference (Leaving Las Vegas, for instance, pretty much lands us squarely into stage two of the process right from the start).* But one film from the early sixties deals with the despair of the addict in a way that eschews all forms of hyperbole and cliche. I speak as someone who not only has alcoholism in his family but clinical depression as well when I tell you the silver screen has rarely portrayed the surrender of the alcoholic as honestly. The movie is The Fire Within (Le Feu Follet), directed by Louis Malle in 1963, and the lead performance by Maurice Ronet is a thing of stark beauty.
The Fire Within‘s most startling decision is to start at the end. Not the end where the alcoholic makes a change or decides to give up trying, but the point after that. Our protagonist, Alain, is in rehab already. We are spared the usual drunken rages and blackouts, the hallucinations and stupors. We can assume they came before and leave it at that. The movie’s first few images are that of Alain and Lydia (Lena Skerla) in bed together at a hotel discussing life and rehab. He’s been in rehab for six months since he left New York and his wife, Dorothy. She sends checks to pay for the rehab and the two have discussed divorce but it’s gone no further than that. Lydia’s returning to New York that day and will tell Dorothy Alain’s doing fine but won’t tell her she and he slept together since Alain doesn’t want her to. Why he doesn’t want her to is unclear since he doesn’t speak with Dorothy nor seem to care at all about her or she for him.
He’s given up alcohol and now, fully cured, must leave the detox center. He knows if he leaves he’ll just start drinking again and tells the head of the clinic as much. No matter, he’s cured and it’s time to go. It is at this point that he effectively decides there’s no point to anything and checking out (of life, that is) is probably the best option left. It’s either spend the rest of his life in rehab, dead and numbed to the world, or go back out and drink, dead and numbed to the world. Why not just leave the world altogether?
He comes to this decision in a surprisingly calm manner but it’s only surprising in the sense that it’s not the way the movies usually do it. Usually in the movies, these things are preceded by sobbing and the wringing of hands but for most people reaching the bottom of life’s options, it’s a calming moment (think Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) in The Shawshank Redemption, calmly carving his name on the rafter before hanging himself). And for Alain, the decision provides relief. He even says it out loud but without any sense of urgency or drama, “I’ll kill myself tomorrow.”
With that decision out of the way, Alain hitches a ride to Paris to say goodbye to people he’s known, friends and acquaintances. He does not overtly tell them, “I’m going to kill myself,” but he implies they will not see him again. At this point, most of them try to cheer him up or reinvigorate some long dormant drive they feel is lurking beneath the surface. One of the first friends he visits tells him he’s been accepting of mediocrity for far too long and that he needs to pull himself up and do things with his life. As is so often the case, someone offering advice to an unmotivated and depressed person believes telling them why they shouldn’t be feeling what they’re feeling is the best course of action. Yes, there’s no better way to speed along a spiral of despair than to tell someone their feelings are invalid. What his friend doesn’t understand is that nothing he says matters to Alain. Alain is just there to say goodbye, nothing more.
Eventually, Alain makes his way around Paris visiting many old friends who tell him one way or the other that he’s wrong and has so much potential. Either that, or his decisions are bad and he should change them. One particularly pointless encounter (for Alain, not the movie) comes with an old flame Eva (Jeanne Moreau) who lays under blankets on a sofa, surrounded by three men, artists and drug addicts, in a perpetual state of ennui. According to Eva, Alain was stupid to go to rehab, he’s irresponsible, he’s weak and so on. She offers this criticism all while barely mustering the energy to turn her head to look at him. Alain doesn’t say much except to tell the lot of them that their existence and the drugs they take are boring. He couldn’t be more right. Naturally, when he leaves, they call him a boor because what good is addiction if it can’t make you completely blind to your own faults.
His last stop puts him at a dinner party with a blustering local politician who doesn’t drink and thinks alcoholics are lazy drunkards. Alain does drink here and speaks his mind about himself and other things before walking off into an eternal sunset but it doesn’t become a raging drunk scene, just one of utter disorientation. The dinner hostess, Solange (Alexandra Stewart), wants to make sure Alain returns tomorrow for lunch and he tells her he will. It’s not certain if he says this to be nice or if he has reconsidered his suicide and will remain among the living.
Louis Malle handles the story with a wonderful command of visual composition. The shots are crisp and gorgeous because of Malle’s framing but the elements within each shot are ordinary, even banal. There are no sweeping, operatic camera movements, no bravura sequences. There is a consistent and unblinking observation of Alain, the camera staring at him without judgment as he gazes upon the world without feeling. It is only at the end that Malle uses a brilliant juxtaposition of angles to make clear that Alain, so cold and distant, is finally getting excitable. In a brilliant use of the audience’s instinctive understanding of how cinematography works, Malle shoots Alain from the left side and then, mid-sentence, cuts to a shot of Alain from the right side. He’s not cutting between characters talking, he’s cutting to different shots of the same character talking while he’s talking. The time between the cuts gradually shorten until Alain is bouncing from one side of the screen to the other, disorienting the viewer to the point that following what Alain is even saying becomes difficult.
The Fire Within was submitted by France for nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1963 but wasn’t chosen for nomination by the Academy’s board. It’s a shame because it was certainly deserving with Malle deserving of a Best Director nod as well. But the real snub was not nominating Maurice Ronet for Best Actor. It’s a portrayal of an alcoholic at the end of their life that is so devoid of flailing, gesticulating histrionics it makes most other portrayals of the same thing look embarrassing by comparison. The title itself means one thing to Alain’s friends and acquaintances (a fire inside he needs to reignite) and another to Alain himself (a fire that is dangerous and must be drowned out) and possibly something entirely different to each and viewer of the film. It’s a great and daring work that’s flown beneath the radar for far too long (except for Louis Malle and French New Wave fans) and deserves more attention but, more than anything, the performance of Maurice Ronet (dead too young at 55 from cancer) should be celebrated and lauded as one of the greatest portrayals of despair to ever grace the silver screen.
*Just to clarify, I mean movies that specifically deal with alcoholism/addiction as their subject. A movie like Fat City is about multiple characters, two of which happen to be alcoholics, but the movie itself is not about alcoholism. It is, however, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made and never, ever has barely functioning alcoholism been portrayed on the screen with such frightening accuracy.
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