Just as Louis Malle’s The Lovers is beholden to the music of Brahms, the director’s solemn study of an incipient suicide, The Fire Within, is very much dependent on the biting, melancholy piano music of Erik Satie, especially in the intense scene where alcoholic, depleted playboy Alain (Maurice Ronet) takes a drink in the Café de Flore. In general, however, Malle’s treatment of his main character’s march to death is nowhere near as precise and specific as the Satie music he’s using to signal emotion. Fire Within is obviously personal and sincere, but it would have more impact if it was tighter, leaner, and more decisive. The first scenes have an intriguing tension due to Malle’s abrupt cutting and Ronet’s underlining of this man’s desperation, but too many similar sequences are staged thereafter in which the people Alain knows in Paris all say something along the lines of “He used to be so good looking!” and “Drink ruined his life!” These statements are made behind his back and even to his face, so that Ronet is forced into fastidious self-pity and adolescent “I fascinate me” ruminations on his own lack of warmth and generosity. Alain’s gloomy self-contempt is undoubtedly realistic, but it becomes increasingly tiresome as the film goes on, as do references to Marilyn Monroe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other self-destructive icons of the period. By the time he attends a dinner party filled with jaded bourgeois, Malle starts to use jump cuts to express Alain’s despair, and this modish choice hasn’t aged well. There’s never a moment where Alain is presented with a way out of his muddle, and never a time when we feel any of his wasted possibility as a human being. To be frank, Fire Within devastated me when I saw it in college, but the unrelieved ennui that struck me as scrupulously honest and brave then looks one-note and aimless to me now.
The gray cinematography and aggressive sound are both perfectly clear.
Archival interviews with Ronet and Malle, and some mildly interesting featurettes about the making of the movie.
A heartfelt but unsuccessful film that could have been much better with a more variegated point of view.