Director Malle sets up The Fire Within as a series of events. They don’t feel like events–or even vignettes–because protagonist Maurice Ronet is so transfixing. As the film progresses and the viewer gets to know Ronet better, gets to understand him better, Fire changes. The film is always about Ronet’s plans, Ronet’s actions and how the viewer anticipates them, but once it becomes clear he’s not in control… Well, it doesn’t just change the last third of the film, it changes the first two-thirds of it as well.
Ronet is a recovering alcoholic. He can’t get out of his recovery clinic. The first third of the film, after beautifully establishing his normal days by showing an abnormal one (visiting with his lover–and his absentee wife’s friend–played by Léna Skerla), is mostly just Ronet by himself. Fire is about monotony but never monotonous. Malle has to establish Ronet’s routines to best break them later.
The majority of the film takes place during Ronet’s day trip to Paris. He’s suicidal, saying goodbye to friends from his old life as an amiable, popular Parisian drunk. He’s not an artist, but he’s friends with artists. He’s not an intellectual, but he’s friends with intellectuals.
Fire is simultaneously an exploration of Ronet’s alcoholism (after the fact) and the society he’s abandoned. Malle’s able to juxtapose the two so successfully because of the film’s structure–Ronet moves from conversation to conversation, person to person, moment to moment. It wouldn’t work without the gorgeous black and white photography from Ghislain Cloquet but, technically, the marvel is Suzanne Baron’s editing. Whether cuts between scenes or cuts between shots, Baron brings a calm to even the most hectic moments. Given Malle frequently cuts to closer shots to emphasis Ronet, then out again to longer ones (though never too long, even outdoors), Baron’s ability to maintain that tranquility is even more impressive.
Acting-wise, Ronet is the whole show. He’s surrounded by great performances, but they’re all in small parts. Jeanne Moreau is wonderful, but it’s basically a cameo. Same goes for Bernard Noël. They’re great, but they’re great because Ronet’s so great. The chemistry between the actors, how Malle has a slightly different style for each interaction, all while maintaining a particular deliberateness.
The Fire Within devastates, but it’s also glorious in its intensity. It’s relentless and breathtaking.
Directed by Louis Malle; screenplay by Malle, based on a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle; director of photography, Ghislain Cloquet; edited by Suzanne Baron; production designer, Bernard Evein; released by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France.
Starring Maurice Ronet (Alain Leroy), Jean-Paul Moulinot (Dr. La Barbinais), Bernard Noël (Dubourg), Jeanne Moreau (Eva), Alexandra Stewart (Solange) and Léna Skerla (Lydia).