Le feu follet (1963) – A contemplative study of existential angst from Louis Malle


Louis Malle’s Le feu follet aka The Fire Within deals with an extremely depressed man who is caught inside a whirl of perpetual anxiety. I was a bit hesitant at first to watch this film considering it’s subject matter: suicide. But I decided to watch it anyway and surprisingly, I found it to be an oddly cathartic experience. I’ve never seen existential angst the way it is portrayed here before. The philosophical justification the protagonist gives for his decision to commit suicide is a subject for endless intellectually stimulating discussions.


Maurice Ronet plays the depressed man named Alain Leroy. He is a recovering alcoholic staying at a rehabilitation clinic. He is an unsuccessful writer who was a former war hero. The reason for his depression is not revealed to us at the onset of the film. He walks around in his room aimlessly and restlessly and doesn’t seem to be interested in anything. Even though he is cured of his alcoholism, he doesn’t want to leave the clinic as he looks at it as a sort of refuge from the harsh realities of the outer world. He has made up his mind to kill himself but before going through with it, he makes a final attempt to find a reason to go on living. He gets out of the clinic and meets up with old friends and flames and see how they aredealing with their lives.


What Leroy sees doesn’t change his mind and in fact, it pushes him into a further state of depression. He find their bourgeois lives repulsive and look at them as deluded individuals going through a monotonous existence like everyone else. This is not the kind of existence that he desires. He seems to want something more than all that. Despite some of their assurances that they are fond of him and care for him,he is not convinced and sees it as superficial with no real meaning. This is a man who is slowly revealed to us as someone who used to enjoy life at one point. He is a good-looking man who was admired by the ladies and his friends. But something in him has changed and he is not the same man anymore. What is it that makes him want to commit suicide? This is a question that we are constantly asking as we watch the film.


His discussions and philosophy on life give us an impression that he is an intelligent man who has a rare and revealing insight on life. He finds something wrong with the world and despite being passionate about life and human beings, he sees himself as inadequate and finds it difficult to connect with them. The passion is in his heart but he finds himself incapable of reaching out to other people with his hands, he says. He is disenchanted with the way the world is functioning and it makes people indifferent and unkind to each other. The film looks bleak, sure, but there are also some scenes in this that has an optimistic tone. These are the ones that involves his friends and their repeated attempts to persuade him to see the beauty of life. The philosophical arguments presented in the film are not some made-up rubbish but something that makes a lot of sense and makes us think.


My first Louis Malle film was Elevator to the Gallows, a Hitchcockian thriller that is one of the most sophisticated films I’ve seen. Malle displays the same level of sophistication here too. Two actors that he had worked with on Gallows appear here as well – Maurice Ronet and Jeanne Moreau. Malle basically wanted someone to play his alter-ego. He made this film when he was going through depression himself. Ronet went through a rigorous dieting regimen that would give him the weak and haggard appearance that Malle sought. He even dressed like Malle. I consider this Ronet’s finest performance. He conveys his character’s angst perfectly and plays exactly him exactly how he is supposed to play – a bitter man who sees no solution in front of him other than death.


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