The Fire Within: Criterion Collection

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Daniel Pulliam

Plot: What’s it about?

What a difficult film to categorize. “The Fire Within” is just about as convoluted in its narrative structure as could be imagined, telling the fatalistic story of Alain Leroy (played here with effective restraint and pain by Maurice Ronet) in an almost maddeningly-paced 108 minutes. As the film opens, Alain is in bed with his mistress, saddened to find that, once again, he is unable to feel anything of value for the woman he sees before him. There is also little hope in his mind of salvaging his floundering marriage to a woman he barely knows or of finding any self-worth in a world in which he finds no meaning. Alain begins the film hopeless and forlorn, a shell of a man he may never have been at all. He’s a semi-recovering alcoholic who’s positive that he’ll relapse if given enough time to do so. He resolves to end his life by the end of the following day to leave an “indelible stain” on the world that has shut him out psychologically, socially, and spiritually. Our protagonist if he can be called such starts Malle’s film in this way and, for the duration of the film, doesn’t change his outlook even momentarily.

And therein lies the problem with “The Fire Within”. In developing such an involving, character-driven piece, Malle has neglected to give us a leading man worth caring about. Perhaps on some level, that is the point. After all, we do effectively see the world here as a meaningless place full of meaningless relationships with meaningless caricatures that only serve to alienate Alain ever further, both from the external world and from himself. It makes us feel as audience members just as he apparently feels internally. On the other hand, it also serves to alienate us from Alain on that same level in a cinematic sense, diminishing (and finally destroying) any sympathy we may have had for a character who most desperately requires it for this film to work as it should. I found it difficult to feel anything at all for the duration of the picture, and again, I don’t know if this was Malle’s intent, but it left me feeling much as the main character felt throughout the movie: detached, empty, and wanting something that was ultimately just out of reach.

“The Fire Within” is an undeniably well-crafted film filled with all the longing, heartache and hopelessness that embody Malle’s main character as he attempts to reconnect with people only to find himself ever more distant from everyone and everything around him. It’s not an easy film to watch (even at less than an hour and fifty minutes), and yet, it’s an even more difficult one to recommend fully to any but those who can truly appreciate genuinely introspective filmmaking. As a companion piece to Malle’s earlier “The Lovers”, it presents us with a startling contrast. The first film showed us a morally-ambivalent heroine who found the only truth in life by finding her own truth with someone else, regardless of the consequences. Alain’s has no such journey in “The Fire Within”, his apathy and separation from all that lives and breathes are tangible realities, sabotaging any attempt he might have once had to become someone with any hope of redemption. Personal relationships and their importance to one’s definition of fulfillment were obviously important themes for Louis Malle. Call me an optimist, but I couldn’t connect with this film on any but the most technical of levels. If that was the point, then consider it well-taken. Ultimately, though, that’s not why I go to the movies.

Video: How does it look?

“The Fire Within” comes to DVD is a very strong 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. This release mirrors many of attributes that defined the video quality on Criterion’s equally-impressive concurrent release of Louis Malle’s “The Lovers”, with particularly deep and solid blacks, excellent small object details, and a slightly hot contrast ratio (which I’m now convinced, having seen both of these discs in action, was an artistic decision of Malle’s and not a fault of either transfer). Whites tend to bloom slightly, and there’s an inherently grainy quality (again, likely attributable to this being a film of this vintage), but to Criterion’s credit, this natural grain is left intact, though I do suspect that it has been toned down a bit from the source. All in all, this is another fine effort by Criterion, and if hard-pressed, I’d have to say that this transfer just edges out “The Lovers” for overall quality and consistency. I noticed no blocking, edge enhancement or artifacts this time out. I can’t imagine “The Fire Within” ever looking any better than it does here short of high-definition. The film comes with the optional English subtitles as the default.

Audio: How does it sound?

Similarities with this disc and Criterion’s “The Lovers” release are not relegated to the video alone, and the included Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track included here is just as effective as you’d expect from the studio, considering what it isand, as a result, also just about as ineffective as you’d imagine it to be given the limitations. Voices are clear on the track, though I did notice a few instances of harshness in the upper frequencies, no doubt something that couldn’t have really been helped. The score comes through reasonably well and compliments the onscreen action nicely. There’s not much else I can do to elaborate on this mix. There’s just not much here to describe in all honesty. What you do get is a relatively strong mono mix of a film that’s now forty-five years old, but that description is still all you can reasonably expect of it.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Extras on this release include a text biography of Louis Malle, an interesting 20-minute interview recorded for German television from 1995, and another interview with Maurice Ronet shot for a French television. Also on the disc is “Malle’s Fire Within”, which is a collection of interviews from actress Alexandra Stewart and filmmakers Philippe Collin and Volker Schlondorff. Jusqu’Au 23 Jullet, a 2005 documentary, from director Noel Simsolo that draws some interesting compares “The Fire Within” with its source, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel “Le Feu Follet”. Included in this extra are segments featuring actor Mathieu Amalric, writer Didier Daeninckx, and Cannes Festival curator Pierre-Henri Deleau. A booklet is also included here, as with “The Lovers” release, which features two excellent short essays on the film, entitled “Day Of The Dead” (Michael Ciment) and “Pale Fire” (Peter Cowie) respectively. This is a very good extras package for the film with more than enough content to please fans of Malle’s work, and, like the other aspects of the disc, if pressed I’d have to place the bonus features on this release a bit ahead of Criterion’s “The Lovers” release. Though I have my problems with this film personally, it still garners my highest recommendation for its fans.

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