Jan 24, 2015

The Fire Within

In certain contexts, I have a certain amount of respect for people that decide take the most irreparable of actions by committing suicide, as it demonstrates the power of man’s singular consciousness, sense of autonomy, and will power, hence why certain groups of lower intelligences (i.e. black women) are much less likely to do it despite their sorry lots in life while some of the most intelligent and creative individuals in human history have. Indeed, how many times have you heard of a welfare negress or a starving African committing suicide?!  In fact, despite all the starving Negroes and third world Asians in the world, virtually all of the countries with the highest suicide rates are white or East Asian.  Of course, different people commit self-slaughter for different reasons. While people like to make the libelous claim that many Nazi leaders and their followers committed suicide because they feared revenge from the Allied powers, it probably had more to do with the fact that the utopia they knew and grew accustomed to had been totally destroyed and thus they had no reason to go on living, but people in the contemporary Occident would not understand this because they believe in nothing. Naturally, most people commit suicide because, for whatever reason, they cannot bear to keep on living. Maybe it is because a family friend unexpectedly committed the act not too long ago or because I have recently watched a number of cinematic works surrounding the theme, but I have noticed some of the most potent films that I have ever seen are suicide-themed pieces, even though you know what is going to happen at the end. Indeed, it is nearly impossible for me to empathize with men that chop their cocks off and pretend to be women but In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) is arguably Fassbinder’s greatest and most original work. Additionally, underrated Dutch auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst, whose first feature Paranoia (1967) concludes with the antihero jumping out of a window and who committed self-slaughter himself by drowning himself in the Scheldt river, concluded his singular and largely overlooked career with his magnum opus De witte waan (1984) aka White Madness which ends in a bittersweet fashion with a rather romantic mother-son suicide pact. Despite his reputation as a master of micro-budget celluloid necrophilia, Aryan artsploitation Jörg Buttgereit was surely at his most creative and seemingly personal with Der Todesking (1990), which features a brutal suicide (and/or murder) for each day of the week. As someone who has never found French filmmaker Louis Malle (Lacombe Lucien, My Dinner with Andre) to be a particularly intriguing director as a man who, not unlike like his kraut pal and protégé Volker Schlöndorff, mostly directed literary adaptations that reflected his safe and banal bourgeois background, I was quite surprised to discover that he directed a particularly potent work on the subject of suicide that I would argue is the greatest film the man ever assembed. Indeed, Le feu follet (1963) aka The Fire Within aka Will O' the Wisp aka A Time to Live and a Time to Die—a work adapted from French dandy turned literary fascist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel of the same French name (known as Will O' the Wisp in English) that was inspired by the 1929 suicide of the writer’s opium-addled surrealist poet friend Jacques Rigaut—depicts the last 24 hours or so of a recovering alcoholic writer who has decided to kill himself and spends the next day reuniting with disconnected friends of various stripes who ultimately reaffirm his seemingly unshakeable will to self-slaughter. 

 Like many high-profile self-loathing bourgeois left-wingers, Malle was born into a wealthy family and seemed to resent that fact despite the fact that his opulent background helped to jumpstart his filmmaking career. Before he was even 30 years old, the filmmaker how already directed a number of successful films, especially Les Amants (1958) aka The Lovers starring Jeanne Moreau in a role that would make her an international star, yet he was apparently hating life at the time and wanted to direct a more personalized ‘auteur’ work that reflected his own mind and worldview which he ultimately found upon being lent a copy of Drieu’s novel Le feu follet, which the filmmaker had actually previously read in his youth. Much like how Fassbinder became obsessed with the character of ex-convict Franz Biberkopf of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) which he adapted into his 1980 15½ hour magnum opus of the same name, Malle found himself thoroughly identifying with the protagonist Alain Leroy of Drieu’s novel. In fact, also like Fassbinder with his work, Malle found himself tormenting the lead actor of his film adaptation, Maurice Ronet (who previously starred in Malle’s Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958) aka Elevator to the Gallows), out of jealously because he felt such a personal identification with the protagonist and even wanted to play the role himself (though, as Malle eventually realized, he did not have the acting talent). As Malle would reveal in a September 1994 interview with journalist Angelika Wittlich for German television a little over a year before he died, he was not necessarily suicidal like the character of his film but could relate to his dismay with life, incapacity to love, and personal crisis in regard to not wanting to confront adulthood, stating of the work that: “It was very simply a way to exorcise my desire to commit suicide.” Updating the story from the late-1920s to the early-1960s and changing the protagonist’s drug of choice from opium to alcohol, The Fire Within is a darkly touching and unrepentant “nocturnal poem” (this is how Malle once described the film) that is much more empathetic to its perturbed protagonist than Drieu’s source novel as a work that penetrates the viewer’s heart in a fiercely unflinching fashion comparable to when lead character finally decides to end it all by unloading a bullet in his chest with a German Luger. 

Washed-up French writer Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet) is such a hopeless alcoholic that his estranged American wife Dorothy, who never appears in the film (aside from in photo form), had to pay for him to stay at an expensive Versailles clinic where he could undergo alcohol detoxification in relative comfort. In fact, Alain is so fed up with life that, despite being 'cured' of alcohol addiction and reaching equilibrium in terms of his physical health, he does not want to leave the clinic as it allows him escape from the pain and responsibility of real-life and being a man. Indeed, Alain is more or less a lost and morbidly depressed man-child who is afraid of becoming an adult and leading a normal life. Despite being a born lady’s man, Alain is an exceedingly emasculated fellow who has spent his entire life living off woman, who he seems to inspire an almost instinctive maternal nurturing quality in due to is innate helplessness, as if he is a cute little puppy dog that has been abandoned. While Alain has no problem attracting women, he has a complete and utter incapacity to love or be loved, thus all his romances always end in abject failure, thus reinforcing his undying sense of loneliness and instability. As for his parents, Alain simply describes them as being “very old” and even depresses an old woman at clinic when she asks about them and he less than emotionally responds, “I don’t see them anymore.” The Fire Within begins with Alain lying in bed with his old friend/ex-lover Lydia (Léna Skerla) after having what seems to banal and passionless coitus. Indeed, while Alain is a sort of dapperly dressed Don Juan who can pretty much charm any woman, his seductive persona, like his clothing, is merely a strategically placed mask that disguises a self-admitted poor lover, or as he later states in the film, “I’m awkward, inept. The sensitivity was in my heart, not my hands.” While Lydia begs, “Let me see you smile,” Alain is incapable of even giving her so much as a contrived smirk. Lydia wants to marry Alain and tells him that his yank wife is no good because “You need a woman who won’t let you out of her sight,” but as he tells her before saying goodbye to her for the last time regarding the futility of marriage, “You’d be unhappy…Another Dorothy. Anyway, you can’t help me. It’s too late.”  Indeed, it is too late because Alain has a date with a bullet that will penetrate his heart like no woman ever could.  Of course, also unlike with women, Alain's affair with the lead love letter will last forever, thereupon offering him the sense of permanence that he has always been seeking but could never find.

 Alain has turned his room at the clinic into a morbid hermetic fantasy realm that more resembles the unrefined habitat of a rebellious child than that of a grown man. Aside from photographs, toys, and odd trinkets, Alain has adorned his room with newspaper clippings about death, including a 5-year-old boy that accidently hanged himself with a curtain cord while attempting to fly. When Alain’s personal doctor Dr. La Barbinais (Jean-Paul Moulinot) comes into his room under the pretense of playing chess to tell him he is ‘cured’ and that he should prepare to move out and move on with his life, he reacts by acting like a drama queen and proclaims that, despite being sober, he still suffers from “a single feeling of constant anxiety” that makes living a normal life impossible for him. The doctor gives Alain various recommendations as to what he can do with his life, including opening a store, but he disregards them all and complains of being ridden with debt. Before leaving his room, Dr. La Barbinais says “Life is good” and Alain cynically replies, “good for what, Doctor?” and says to himself “tomorrow” in regard to his intention to kill himself the next day. Before going to sleep, Alain tells himself that he is going to commit suicide. Against his doctor’s orders, Alain heads to decadent Paris—the city that devoured his soul—the next day after hitching a ride from two sloppy proles who assume he is a rich man due to how he dresses. Upon arriving in Paris, Alain cashes two large checks that have been given to him by Lydia and his wife Dorothy, but being off the booze, he does not have much to spend it on. 

 The first person Alain reunites with in Paris is, somewhat ironically, his old bartender friend Charlie (René Dupuy), who is shocked when his favorite alcoholic turns down a free drink. At the bar, Alain becomes rather dejected when he bumps into a young man named Michel ‘Milou’ Bostel (Bernard Tiphaine) who reminds him of his younger self, as he cannot live with the fact that he misspent his entire life on beers and boobs and has nothing of intrinsic value to show for it. Next, Alain stops by the apartment of his old pal Dubourg (Bernard Noël ) who is now a bourgeois family man and academic of Egyptology who is quite comfortable with his new life as a father, scholar, and respectable tax-paying and law-abiding French citizen. Alain tries to mock Dubourg by sarcastically asking him “playing daddy now?,” but he sees it as no laughing matter. When Alain tells of his intention to end his life, Dubourg attempts in vain to talk him out of it by stating, “Life still has things to offer. You must have a sense of your life. That sense can’t perish,” but it is no hope. Needless to say, Dubourg’s words are lost on Alain when he proudly remarks, “Don’t judge by appearances. You see me as a resigned bourgeois…But my life’s more intense now than when I drank and slept around.” As Alain tells Dubourg, “It’s hard to be a man. You have to want it,” as the last thing he wants to be is a man as that would require him to take responsibility for his life.  Before parting ways with Dubourg, Alain confides in him, “I wanted you to help me die. That’s all,” but his friend still tries to talk him out of it by offering him the opportunity to stay at his flat where he and his family lives an “ordered life.” Of course, Alain is deathly allergic to order of any sort. 

Alain seems to have the most in common with his painter friend Eva (Jeanne Moreau) as she is similarly miserable and pessimistic, calling his wife Dorothy an “American witch” and Dubourg “deadbeat Dubourg,” but he cannot tolerate hanging out with her for long as she lives with an art collective of pathetically pretentious and zombified dope fiends who make fun of him for going to rehab. Repulsed by their lifeless inebriated stupors, Alain remarks to the thoroughly narcotized art fags, “Drugs are life. Boring, like life” and sarcastically adds, “some addicts live until 70.” Alain is especially repulsed by an effete hook-nosed poet named Urcel (Alain Mottet) who describes him as a jealous failure when he leaves, but Eva rebukes him and states, “He’s a very sweet guy and deeply unhappy…and I should have let him go.” Surely out of all the women that Alain interacts with during the film, Eva seems like the only one that understands him and may have been able to save him, but she lacks the strength to take action. Alain also decides it is not much fun hanging out with his pals François (François Gragnon) and Jérôme Minville (Romain Bouteille) because they are self-professed “stubborn” members of the dissident far-right paramilitary organization OAS (aka “Organisation de l'armée secrète”) who keep getting thrown in prison for fighting against Algerian independence. While sitting outside of a café while all by his lonesome, Alain decides to break his sobriety by drinking a glass of wine and naturally gets rather sick as a result. While Alain is walking around sick in a restaurant, an old queen states to another fag about him, “See that face? Alcohol. He’s done for. A shame. He was good-looking. Richard was in love with him.”  Indeed, you have certainly hit a low point in life when you have a couple of snide little faggots gossiping about your decline right in front of your face.

 Ultimately, Alain decides to sleep off his alcohol-induced sickness in the lavish home of his opulent old flame Solange (played by Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart, who director Malle later had a daughter with) and her wealthy cuckold of a husband Cyrille Lavaud (Jacques Sereys) where he makes a huge ass of himself after a fancy dinner that his arch-enemy Brancion (Tony Taffin) attends. Like at a lunch he attends at the beginning film with his co-patients at the clinic, Alain seems completely detached at the dinner and barely even reacts when he is directly spoken to. When Cyrille makes the mistake of giving Alain drinks after the dinner, the protagonist gets so erratically drunk that he smashes a glass, cuts his hand, and embarrasses himself in front of all his friends and enemies, especially Solange, who he begins groveling in front, stating things like, “You’re life itself. Yes, life.” While Solange clearly cares for Alain, she is a married woman with a stinking wealthy hubby and must reject her ex-lover's drunken romantic advances. After deciding he has suffered “enough humiliation,” Alain leaves the party and, unbeknownst to them, says goodbye to his friends forever. Before going back to the clinic, Alain gives some quasi-fatherly advice to the young man Milou who reminds of his younger self while the two get drunk and discuss the enigma of the opposite sex. As Alain remarked to his friend Dubourg earlier in the film regarding women, “I have no power over them. I was handsome at 20. They still find me fun and nice. But it’s not enough. I have no hold on them. And yet, it’s only through women that I’ve felt some hold on life” and it certainly seems that young playboy Milou will be resigned to a similarly lonely fate, though he does not seem to realize it yet.  After waking up in his room at the clinic with a champagne bottle in his bed the next morning, Alain takes a couple more chugs of alcohol, pays a maid money to not visit his room for the next couple hours, locks his door, packs all his photos and money into a suitcase, shaves his face, has a small chat with Solange on the phone where he lies about agreeing to meet her and her friends for lunch (he gets jealous when she calls his enemy Brancion a “force of nature”), finishes reads F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and shoot himself in the heart with a Luger. As for his suicide note, Alain writes: “I’m killing myself because you didn’t love me, because I didn’t love you. Because our ties were loose, I’m killing myself to tighten them. I leave you with an indelible stain.” 

 As Dutch auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst once wrote, “Pasolini said suicide was the only freedom given to man” and in The Fire Within, the protagonist demonstrates this ‘god given’ freedom in a most perturbingly potent and morbidly fitting way to officially conclude an already aborted life. As Pasolini also wrote, “Death does determine life” and “Once life is finished it acquires a sense; up to that point it has not got a sense; its sense is suspended and therefore ambiguous.” Indeed, not until protagonist Alain Leroy actually kills himself does his degenerate life of aimless dipsomania and depression derive any meaning, as he, like so many drug addicts and alcoholics, was someone who had already long given up on life and his profession and no longer believed any of the will-o'-the-wisps he built up for himself, thus taking the only rational course of action for someone in his beyond forlorn situation of no return.  Although none of Alain's writings are ever revealed during the film aside from his short but sweet and brazenly biting suicide letter, one can almost certainly guarantee without reading them that his self-slaughter only added to their meaning and literary prowess just as Austrian Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger's suicide was more or less the natural course of action to take after penning his ideas on Jews, gender, and even suicide in his magnum opus Geschlecht und Charakter (1903) aka Sex and Character. More importantly, Alain realized he would never be able to truly love or be loved, hence his state of perennial loneliness despite the fact that so many beauteous women adored and even financially supported him, as a sort of tragic frog Don Juan. Although The Fire Within can certainly be described as a dark and gloomy work, Alain’s exceedingly pessimistic weltanschauung and eventual suicide will probably only scare or disturb those that can relate to his personality and predicament in life, but then again, people that far gone are more typically afraid of life than death, hence why they commit self-slaughter in the first place. Auteur Louis Malle could certainly relate to the character, confessing: “It was such a personal film…that I thought, ‘If possible, I’d be glad if it were never released.’ I made it for myself. I might show it to some friends, but I really didn’t want it to be released. I thought it was such a personal film. It’s not entertainment. It’s the first film I made that is in no way ‘entertainment.’”  Maybe if Malle was not so afraid of making personal films, he would have become a much better director and had created other works of a similar artistic integrity to The Fire Within, but aside from a couple exceptions like his somewhat anomalous dystopian work Black Moon (1975), he mostly went back to directing 'safe' entertainment and literary adaptations, hence why he was later able to have a fairly successful career working in Hollywood during the last two decades or so of his life.

Featuring a lead actor that seemed to be born to play the part in what would ultimately be the greatest performance of his life and a striking use of French self-described ‘gymnopaedist’ Erik Satie’s classic minimalistic composition Gymnopédies that immaculately accentuates the perturbed protagonist’s lingering state of impenetrable melancholia, The Fire Within is one of those oh-so rare films that seems perfect in its entirety, which is certainly not something that can be said of most of Malle’s other largely pansy ass works. It should certainly be noted that Malle was not just obsessed with the source novel Le feu follet, but also the real-life poet that inspired the story, as well as the man that wrote it. Indeed, if one watches the 1994 German television interview with journalist Angelika Wittlich featured on the Criterion Collection release of The Fire Within, Malle describes his longstanding fascination with Pierre Drieu La Rochelle who, despite being his political opposite as a fascist and Vichy collaborator, intrigued the filmmaker due to his lifelong obsession with suicide. Of course, unlike the character of Malle’s film, Drieu did not commit suicide until he was 52 while in hiding after the ‘liberation of Paris’ in 1944 (Malle had to go to Drieu's friend, novelist and Gaullist resistance fighter turned French Minister for Cultural Affairs André Malraux, who protected his fascist writer friend before he committed suicide, to get the rights to the novel). Interestingly, Malle’s colleague François Truffaut (who was half Jewish, though he did not find out this until later in his life) stated regarding the political beliefs of Drieu and his compatriot Robert Brasillach (who was actually executed for ‘thought crimes’ as a collaborationist) that, “views that earn their advocates the death penalty are bound to be worthy of esteem.” Despite Malle’s left-wing idealism (as especially epitomized by the characters of the Minville brothers), somehow I suspect that Drieu would have more appreciated The Fire Within than anything that Truffaut ever directed. Notably, Drieu’s novel was somewhat recently adapted by Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier (a distant relative of Lars von Trier) under the title Oslo, 31. august (2011) aka Oslo, August 31st and though it is an excellent modernist reworking that works quite well in its somber Nordic setting, it is not quite as good as The Fire Within and I say that as someone who prefers Germanic languages over French and who has always thought of Malle as a sort of obscenely overrated arthouse hack. 

-Ty E

No comments: