N°2 | The Fire Within (Louis Malle, 1963): Suicide or the Impossible Adaptation

Erika thomas

Abstract :

In 1931, The French writer Drieu La Rochelle published one of his most famous novels Le Feu Follet. The story, carried by the protagonist Alain Leroy, is supposed to be a portrait depicting the last moments in the life of the poet Jacques Rigaut—a friend of the author’s who committed suicide two years before, in 1929. In the early 60s, the French filmmaker Louis Malle, decided to adapt the novel into a film by modernising it for the 60s. From the novel to the film, differences and similarities shed light on the conceptual dimensions of this character and his existential perspective. Indeed, at the end of Louis Malle’s film, Alain Leroy is staring at us, creating a disturbingly direct eye contact which calls for attention. He seems to illustrate Vaclav Havel’s statement: “Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren’t in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life.”

Résumé :

En 1931, l’écrivain français Drieu La Rochelle publie un de ses plus célèbres romansLe Feu Follet. L’histoire, portée par le protagoniste Alain Leroy, est censée être un portrait retraçant les derniers moments de la vie de son ami, le poète Jacques Rigaut, qui s’est suicidé deux ans auparavant, en 1929. Dans les années 60, le cinéaste français Louis Malle décide d’adapter le roman au cinéma en modernisant le propos. Du roman au film, les différences et les similitudes mettent en lumière la dimension conceptuelle de ce personnage et de sa perspective existentielle. En effet, à la fin du film de Louis Malle, Alain Leroy nous regarde fixement, créant un contact visuel incroyable qui nous interpelle. Il semble illustrer la déclaration de Vaclav Havel: “Parfois, je me demande si les suicides ne sont pas en réalité de tristes gardiens du sens de la vie”.


        How can one grasp, from the inside, the thought patterns of a man haunted by the desire to end it all? That is the question which is asked by the aesthetic choice of the close ups opening Louis Malle’s The Fire Within and exposing Alain Leroy’s face (played by Maurice Ronet) in the crude light of his weariness. The film puts suicide into perspective as an inability to adapt to the objective and subjective constraints of existence and unfurls around a series of face to face encounters and meetings—evasions and alibis convened by the protagonist—so as to express the decision to commit suicide. Alain Leroy is an unsuccessful writer, an anxious, alcoholic thirty-year-old bourgeois undergoing treatment for alcoholism in a Versailles clinic. After a night spent in a hotel room where he has difficulty making love to Lydia—a friend of his wife Dorothy’s, who is still in New York—and following a painful interview with his doctor, he decides to get in touch again with his Parisian old friends. How are they getting on with their lives? The impossible mourning for lost youth and the oppressive nostalgia of times past are among the explanatory perspectives that Louis Malle adopts to question suicide in this film adapted from the novel of the same name by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle.[1] Beyond the things between the book and the film versions of The Fire Within have in common or in which they differ —elements which, in the framework of this article, will only be briefly glimpsed—it is the textual and relational supports, as they disclose an impotence for living in the film, that will be considered here.

Literary Differences, Resemblances and Symbolic Supports in The Fire Within

        When he got hold of Drieu La Rochelle’s novel—published in 1931 in honour of his friend Jacques Rigaut, “fascinated as much as oppressed by boredom” (Cirelli 15), who had committed suicide two years earlier—Louis Malle[2] modernised the issue at stake to affirm his appropriation of the subject: “The film is entirely personal, deliberately personal, incredibly close to myself. (…) I had just turned thirty. (…) I was thinking about the end of my youth, like Alain Leroy, the character in the book and the script. I was Alain Leroy” (1963 Interview). This relationship to passing time and the nostalgia assumed by the film-maker at the time of making the film show through on the screen notably in the stylistic treatment of a time which is nevertheless present.

        The fact it is anchored in the Sixties is rendered by significant visual effects—like the shots showing the considerable urban development of those years, or those showing banknotes, referring to the “new francs” which were introduced in 1960. Verbal reference to the idols of the moment—Françoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan—is also a way of rooting the film in cultural modernity. Yet these temporal data, manifestly affirming the present, have already a quickly fading nature: the buildings along the route that takes the protagonist from Versailles to Paris, slip past until they disappear off the screen. The new banknotes are stuffed into a pocket whilst the camera remains on the protagonist’s face. As far as the musical references are concerned—the “idols”—they are but brief evocations. The nostalgic music of Erik Satie, a composer of the turn of the century close to Jacques Rigaut and the Dadaist movement, submerges them and finishes by plunging them into a fleeting time. Today both works—the book and the film—speak of the turning points of an era.

        What Louis Malle retained from Drieu La Rochelle’s novel acts as a nub around which he constructs what he had to say. In both cases there is a depressed thirty-year-old maintained by a rich American wife, a man—whose past is linked to the war—undergoing a detox treatment in a bourgeois clinic and who, at the end of a fateful stock-taking, takes the path towards his own suicide. In both cases, the shades of the author hover over his subject to the extent of making Alain Leroy a mirror: a self-portrait for Drieu La Rochelle (Soupault interview 1964) and a symbolic double for Louis Malle. The authors were in their thirties when focusing on their work and both were tempted by death. Moreover, the novelist himself committed suicide in 1945, and the film-maker—who went to the lengths of putting his own personal property into the film including the revolver which the character uses to kill himself—admitted in an interview that making this film had been for him a way of not taking his own life (1963 Interview).

        Using central elements in the story, Louis Malle makes several changes. Small but nonetheless significant. Thus, as has been said, the present of the film is not that of the book—we are with the film-maker in the Sixties, and whereas the traumatic past of Alain Leroy in the novel refers to the First World War, in the film it is the Algerian War which is evoked. Similarly, Alain Leroy in Louis Malle’s The Fire Within is not a drug addict but an alcoholic. These elements allow the Sixties audience to identify more easily with the character as the film-maker has indicated in an interview.[3] Other subtler differences shed light on the perception Louis Malle had of his character who is haunted by the desire for death. In the Drieu La Rochelle novel, all the action takes place in November[4] and is concentrated in Paris whereas Louis Malle’s film, taking place in June (indicated by the calendar in the Flore café), causes two spaces to coexist: that of precarious redemption, Versailles, where Doctor La Barbinais’s clinic is situated and that of devastating melancholy, Paris, where his former friends live. These two spaces—like the sixth month of the year—recreate the interior division in the character taken, at one moment, in a dilemma which abstinence from alcohol reveals to him. Another interesting element in this film, Alain Leroy meets right-wing activists, former pals from his regiment close to the OAS. That encounter—which gives the character a political dimension by anchoring him in an ideological context which he refuses (“you’re just boy scouts”, he says to them)—does not exist in the novel where the protagonist is lucid about his incapacity to engage in any action whatsoever. Also in the film, just before his death, Alain Leroy reads The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald[5]—in the novel, his project is to finish reading a detective story. How can one not see in this sequence where the failed writer, Alain, is confronted with the novelist of The Crack-Up, the ultimate confirmation of his inability to exist? Here he is, collecting newspaper cuttings connected to tragic death as if they were so many elements irrigating possible literary inspiration.

        In this recalling of a writer’s impotence which The Fire Within proposes, the literary text, as an object in the film, frames the protagonist’s journey. In fact, beyond the scenes showing books (notably at Dubourg’s house, or on the shelves of the bookshops Alain passes by, or even in the one he goes into to look for the Minville brothers or again in Eva’s studio), three moments in the film make the printed word an element of its own, shedding light on the character’s inner being. First of all, the text spoken in voice off in the sequence that opens the film. Secondly, the close up of Alain reading and putting down the Scott Fitzgerald novel. Finally, the text that is superimposed on the face of the protagonist just as he has killed himself. Let us take each of those moments. The first scenes of the opening sequence, which take place in a hotel room, show alternately Lydia and Alain in close-up. Each of them is visibly isolated by this cut whilst a man’s voice off is heard for the only time in the whole film.[6]

At that moment, Alain studied Lydia’s face relentlessly as he had been doing since she came to see him three days earlier. What was he looking for? Lydia turned her head away lowered her eyelids and grew absorbed. In what? In herself? Was it her contracted rage that swelled her neck and her belly, this sensation that emanated from nothing but was so clear? Once again the feeling had eluded him, like a snake between stones. (0:01:03- 0:02:09)

        This text is, more or less—pruned and compressed—that which begins the Drieu La Rochelle novel. It deals with the perception of physical sensations related to pleasure in a man and a woman together in bed, after having made love. Eros—understood as a pulsion of self-preservation and strength for living—is felt as a precarious momentum, an Eros made fragile by his difficulty in expressing himself in an obvious way (“Once again the feeling had eluded him, like a snake between stones”) implying an impossibility for sharing (“[she] grew absorbed. In what? In herself?”). A little further on in the film, while Alain is dining in the Versailles clinic, bits of conversation between two inmates can be heard “some small-town professor who posits Racine’s world against that of Proust, Cocteau, Genet…” (0:14:11). We can discern in this brief incursion, a new reference to love and to its figures which are perceived as transgressive. This scene in which the literary comes back to the surface, the Eros made fragile by the first sequence gives way to a moralised Eros at the mercy of a “prig” of a professor, a Subject Who Is Supposed to Know. This first way of using literary references calls up a question: is it this virtuous and normative morality which fragilizes Alain’s life force? We note that his sexual ambivalence seems to play little part in the film, even if it is discreetly present: Alain states that he cannot bring himself to “touch” things and women. At another time, he watches for a long time a young man in the toilets at the Flore before leaving, lamenting: “The humiliation of it all!”. In each case, literary references invite us to consider the impotence of the subject. But what can this sexual impotence be symptomatic of?

        In the last sequence of the film, in a few minutes, two other important references are displayed on the screen and prolong the theme. One is subtle, the other obvious. One needs to watch the image on the screen very attentively to notice that the book resting on Alain’s bedside table before he shoots himself is The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald[7] (1:42:38). This way of unveiling an object without really doing so, invites us to consider two elements that can enlighten us about Alain’s confusion. Two elements are buried in this desire for death: the first concerns the wager of literary creation. In one of the sequences of the film, we see the protagonist trying to write (0:22:10)—before crossing out all his sentences and drawing, instead, a game of hangman—in another, he confides to the person he is speaking that he keeps a diary—“of no interest whatsoever” he says, “I tore it up today” (0:53:03). So, what is the significance of the discreet presence of Fitzgerald? In the end, literature fails to keep this desire for death at a distance. This inability for creation to serve as a vital support, and thus as a rampart against oneself, is an important element which Louis Malle gives us in this discreet reference. The second element is to be seen in the very contents of the Gatsby story. The common denominator between the American protagonist and Alain Leroy goes further than suicide: it is the portrait of a subject constrained by feeling to detach himself from a group, seen as an idealised “family,” in which he would have liked to have his place. The life force seems then essentially compromised by his introspection which is scornful of others.

        The second reference to literature comes in the last sequence of the film. Unlike the discreet reference to Fitzgerald, this one saturates the screen: Drieu La Rochelle’s text (Feu Follet 160) is printed on the fixed image of Alain who looks at us for an eternity just after committing suicide. Here Alain expresses himself in his own name: “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” (1:43:17). Who are these others who are under an obligation to love him? (“I wanted so much to be loved”, he says to his double, Milou,[8] the evening before his death). A screen onto which he projects his own disenchantment with life? The expression of nostalgia for a lost past? A reminder that one cannot get free from one’s past? For Fitzgerald readers, the answer lies in the last sentence of his novel: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (187-88).

The Other who Reveals a Lack and an Inexhaustible Vacuum to Fill

        Various face to face situations or meetings can be seen in The Fire Within. The first of these—concerning Alain Leroy and Lydia, his wife’s friend—opens the film and is fourteen minutes long (0:14:20) putting down the foundations for the suicidal character: the double[9] and the lack. This is from the first images where Alain and Lydia are in a bed after a dissatisfying sexual relationship and where the voice off comes to testify to a “disembodiment” of the character. We can in fact consider that this voice is that of its narrator speaking of the author in the third person “At that moment, Alain studied Lydia’s face relentlessly”. Does he not say later that he keeps a diary? In that moment with Lydia, he is no longer in his body, but elsewhere, trying—like a writer lacking inspiration—to seize the moment of frustration in order to make it a literary object.

        From this perspective, the voice off testifies—because it never again appears in the film—to an aborted attempt, an impossibility to create, a lack of perseverance, a lack of desire coming in the end to enlighten his last text: “I’m killing myself…”. This problem of doubling the self (actor self and narrator self, if we consider the voice off is his own) is found visually represented in the scene showing Alain Leroy looking at himself in the mirrors of the hotel room. Through the position he takes up before these mirrors, it is a double, or more exactly a fragmented and divided man, who is shown on screen. Another mirror—the one in the bathroom, where Lydia puts on her make-up—serves as a medium for the most intimate conversation between the protagonists (looking at their reflexions) as they talk about an absent third party (Dorothy, Alain’s wife who stayed behind in New York). Remember too that Dorothy is taking charge of financing Alain and his treatment for alcoholism. The one who is absent is indirectly a figure of lack—a lack to be found in all the places used by the character in this first sequence with Lydia: whether it be at the hotel (the bed, the room, the bathroom, the entrance hall and the threshold to the street) or more generally in the urban space (the streets, the café, the taxi and the entrance to the clinic). Everything puts this lack around which the character is constructed into perspective. Lack of pleasure in bed where—as we have said, the initial successive close-up shots of one person then the other isolate them in a form of incommunicability. Lack of feeling of unity in that hotel room where Alain Leroy, looking at his reflexion in a double mirror, appears as a fragmented object.[10] Lack of autonomy, in the space in the bathroom where it is said that Dorothy pays for his treatment for alcoholism each month. Lack of money, in the entrance hall where instead of a tip he leaves his watch after checking his pockets and, in the café, where Lydia, like Dorothy, writes him a cheque which, at first, he tries to refuse. Lack of time when, crossing the street, he intimates that he will not be able to take Lydia to the airport. Lack of desire when, in the taxi, he ends up announcing to Lydia that he will not be joining her in New York. In the end, Alain Leroy, going through a difficult treatment for alcoholism (“Had I known, I wouldn’t have done it…”, he says to an old man at the café), leads us to wonder what can be put in the place of a lack which takes so many shapes.

        How can this vacuum be filled to succeed in adapting oneself to the constraints of the real? The question is even more complex in that the lack here is essentially linked to alcohol and Alain’s stay in the clinic only reiterates his feeling of withdrawal from life. The face to face conversation with Dr La Barbinais, which takes place in the protagonist’s room (0:25:40-1:32:00) is edifying in this respect. Wanting Alain to leave the clinic, the doctor tries to persuade him he is cured. Yet Alain warns him: as soon as he is outside, he will go back to drinking. He seems to be sulking in a corner of his bed when—captured in a close-up low-angle shot, as if he were crushed by so much incomprehension—Alain listens to the doctor asking him a question which illustrates his incapacity to understand what is matter with him: “You still have feelings of anxiety?” “It’s not feelings of anxiety, Doctor, it’s a single feeling of constant anxiety.” Existential anxiety which cannot be noticed by a second-rate doctor, who is incapable of seeing the revolver Alain hurries to hide when he comes into the room, unable to hear the despair of his patient who murmurs: “Don’t worry. I’ll be gone by the end of the week, come what may” and to whom he says, incisively or compassionately, that it is “a matter of willpower” and that “life is good.” Constant anxiety, Alain tells us.

        There are many different definitions of anxiety. A synthesis of the philosophical (Morin 300-01) or psychoanalytical perspectives (Assoun 31) invites us to consider that anxiety is a symptom of the unconscious perception of an object that sends the subject into nothingness. This consideration incites us to look—through the eyes of the character—at what surrounds him when he is alone at two precise moments in this sequence in the clinic: when he is on the balcony, after the meal with the other patients of the clinic and when he is in his room, before the doctor arrives. When he arrives on the balcony, in a detached way, Alain kicks a football that had fallen there by accident, before looking at life going on around him. The melancholic notes of Erik Satie give dramatic intensity to the whole sequence.

        The character’s pensive look stops first on the ambulance-men and their ambulance parked in front of the back door of the clinic, then on two little boys running up and leaving joyfully with the ball they have found on the edge of the garden, finally on a woman airing her sheets at one of the windows of a neighbouring house. Scenes of everyday life shown around the figure of the threshold which no longer symbolises merely the separation of places—as was the case in the first part of the film—but which acts as a metaphor for the protagonist’s inner division, the precarious in-two-minds state in which he finds himself. The balcony, the door and the thresholds of the garden and of the window give life to the possible limits and horizons of the inner torment. In the second moment of solitude, Alain is in his room. He sighs, he seems to have difficulty breathing, he slackens his tie, and deals with his boredom: he looks at the photographs of Dorothy, winds up the clock, plays with the ornaments and with the cigarette packets, cuts out a newspaper articles linked to death, concentrates for a few seconds on a chess game, tries to write or walks round and round. He sighs again and repeats now and then “Dorothy” or “What a shame, what a crying shame.” At one precise moment, he takes a revolver out of his attaché-case. He looks at it and strokes it. His attention is suddenly diverted by life outside. He gets up and flattens his face against the window pane to watch a broken-down car, a musician passing by, parents with a pushchair and other passers-by. The arrival of the doctor in the room comes as an interruption to this spectacle of life that offers itself to him. The window pane represents the invisible separation from life. Perceiving, and this includes touching it, which is far from being a banal experience of limitation, sends Alain back to his fundamental separation from this life.

        Alain can only be a “spectator,” whether he is on the balcony—from the moment that the shadow of death (the ambulance) slides into the events of daily life (the game and the house-work)—or whether he is behind the window pane, when the noises of life seem to have, for a brief moment, the power to pull him from the weapon with which he is going to put a full stop to his existence. This is what is perceived, and which feeds his anxiety: abstinence makes him clear-sighted as to his separation from life, makes him lucid as to his precarious in-two-minds state. When we consider that an addict adjusts in such a way as to make up his narcissistic deficit (Juignet 78-82), we understand that alcohol filled the cracks in the narcissistic suffering of the character. Suffering, due to depression, should thus be kept at a distance. The difficulty of abstinence is due to the perception that it permits and to the anxiety which this produces.

Impossible Compromises and the Irrepressible Desire for Death

        The desire for death is first implicitly, then explicitly, verbally expressed to the barman at the Hotel du Quai Voltaire. Then to Dubourg, who does not want to listen, and to Eva, who shares with him the taste for nothingness (0:52:56-1:05:46). Both of them propose to invite him to their homes. The former has succeeded in finding the means to continue to be fascinated by existence. The latter has no more illusions. When he finds his old friend Dubourg, Alain Leroy measures the gap that separates them. Dubourg is from that point a “bourgeois” living with his companion, with whom he uses formal language, and her two daughters in an opulent Sixth Arrondissement apartment. The face to face conversation between the two men takes place in a room used as an office, in the dining-room and around the Jardin du Luxembourg. At first sight, Dubourg is stable in his life and his present. However, when one looks more closely it is possible to see in his taste for Egyptology a compromise allowing him to be in another place temporally distant from the present (he does not know who the “idols” of the moment Françoise Hardy or Sylvie Vartan are).

        It is also possible to consider the frugal meal which Dubourg invites Alain to share with his wife and children—a “healthy” meal essentially composed of root vegetables and salad—as an element which questions his appetite for living. At the table, moreover, Dubourg begins by tipping the contents of a capsule (vitamins or food supplements?) into his glass. Even if outside, Dubourg proclaims his well-being (“Fanny and her daughters, that musty apartment: they’re part of my passion”), the aggressivity he shows, notably towards his former friends and to Alain’s disarray (“Let that mediocrity be enough (…) you’re spineless. And weak. And lazy. (…) you defend the shadows, since the sun hurts your eyes”), does not fail to call into question the truth or at least the solidity of his well-being. That said, we can understand that he cannot listen to what Alain says to him on two occasions: “It’s all over for me. I’m leaving. Don’t you understand?” (0:53:33) and “I wanted you to help me to die. That’s all” (1:01:23). These two statements of Alain’s get no response. As he leaves, Dubourg asks his friend to come back and see him, to live with him: “You can write.”

        The Egyptology books function as crutches for Dubourg who wants to live. Nevertheless, Alain does not want to write, he wants to die. Perhaps that is the secret of the happiness built up by Dubourg: continue to advance calmly without seeing and hearing what may sadden him. From this point of view, Alain is his opposite. His friend’s words (“Alain, I love life. What I love in you is that irreplaceable thing, the life inside you”) still resonate in his heart as with quick steps he goes towards an art gallery to meet Eva. With her, the meeting is different. Two elements invite us to consider Eva as a possible figure of life. The first is the way she is presented in the image: she is behind a pane of glass, out of Alain’s reach when he sees her. This shot is not without echoes of the one where Alain, behind the window pane in his room at the clinic, is watching the movement of the street (1:03:15). The second is the sequence in the market they go to together where the stands of cheese, seafood and cold meats which they pass provide a counterpoint to the meal served at Dubourg’s. However, the construction is only a façade—another more lucid way of adjusting than Dubourg’s. When he asks her how she is, Eva retorts: “Me? Abandoned, ruined, utterly devastated, unshakeable, I never change, I never try to understand. Sleep is all I believe in”. The window separating them should be considered as a mirror (“You look like death warmed up” she says to him at this point; “You’re no spring chicken yourself” he replies to her). This sequence with Eva reveals Alain’s ambivalence. He too, like Eva, had been able to allay suspicion and mislead himself (“He was so full of life” when he was on alcohol). When he says to Eva who invites him to stay at her home “I’m leaving, I came to say goodbye” she understands. “You, too”, she replies.

        Framed together, Alain and Eva carry the same despair and advance on the same path. After a brief stop at Eva’s—where Alain finds former friends wasted by drugs to whom he retorts “you’re empty inside”—he continues on his way to the Café de Flore, where he finds the Minville brothers just out of prison and still tempted by political terrorism. “You’re just boy scouts!” Alain tells them dryly, as they are leaving. It is on the threshold of the Flore, on the café terrace, that everything topples. A hardly touched glass of spirits has been left on the table by one of the brothers. It is an immense temptation for Alain Leroy who is caught in a dilemma. The camera frames him first in a 3/4 profile, looking at the horizon before showing what he is looking at: life moving around him. Women, groups of passers-by laughing, cars going past. A woman, also sitting on the terrace of the Flore, looks at him, intrigued. What keeps this life distant from him? There are no windows, no ambulance nor any other figure of separation or death here. The terrace represents the in-two-minds state in which Alain finds himself at this moment in his existence. Can he still choose the life surrounding him? Other people, fragile like him—like the kleptomaniac sitting not far from him—seem to be able to do so. What keeps this life distant from him? Sitting facing us—framed in a chest shot—he drops his hand to retrieve the glass. He grasps it. Still facing us, in a close up shot, he drinks it, turning his face away.

        This choice of shot turns the spectator into a possible interlocutor. What would we have to say? Louis Malle seems to be asking. Once he has drunk, we see him in profile, in a close-up shot in slight low-angle, putting into perspective the choice of giving into temptation. In four months of abstinence he has glimpsed a reality about himself which it is impossible for him to accept. A last society party—where he arrives blind drunk—comes to reveal to him the impotence of alcohol to turn him from his project. It is now death that he covets, and alcohol can do nothing for him. (“I want to say to you that no more than you do I find it funny to sleep on a tomb when it is easy to open it and sleep inside”). As the hostess, Solange, watches him leave, she invites him to come back to lunch the following day. But of this group, Alain only remembers “all their lies.” What follows will, in a few minutes, precipitate the protagonist towards his fatal choice. In Dr La Barbinais’s clinic, Alain Leroy puts his things in order. His suitcase, the parcelled-up things, beyond the metaphor of a long journey, highlight the figure of the stranger.

        Alain Leroy already feels he no longer belongs to this world. Exiled from his youth, and lucid about his incapacity to adapt, it is time for him to get ready to leave. He is now a man who confronts his decision face-on: whereas in the initial scene he is presented as a fragmented man facing the two mirrors in the room, in the final sequence he looks at himself for a long time in the mirror. He is no longer divided between various possibilities. His desire imposes itself. A last telephone call from Solange reminds him of the invitation which he will not take up and is taken as the last alibi element pleading for his suicide. A last book. And it is without regret that he will leave all this. He grabs his weapon, places it over his heart and fires. A last face to face with the spectator. The image freezes and he is looking at us. Then the words come onto the screen that testify to the great narcissistic fragility of he who, not loving himself, would have liked to count on others to succeed in doing so.

Final Considerations: An Individual Choice which Enlightens the Collective

        In this article—structured on a methodology coming from film analysis (Aumont and Marie; Aumont) and on a psychoanalytical perspective of the repetitions presented in the narration[11]—we have considered the journey of the protagonist Alain Leroy as an apt illustration of an individual issue: that of a man incapable of saying goodbye to his lost youth. Yet the protagonist is also portrayed as the subject of a group—towards which he moves to better be confronted with himself—we can also operate a slight unframing and observe elements relative to other characters in the film in order to clarify in another way Alain Leroy’s path: that of a despairing man acting out something which is beyond him. From this perspective—considering the subject as being above all the subject of a group—projects coming from the psychoanalytical approach seek to account for “mental processes and states which are not those of each subject considered in isolation but which, from actions, representations and reciprocal links between a subject, another subject and yet another, form a common and shared psychic reality of the whole group” (Kaës 69). This approach invites us to see in Alain Leroy’s suicide not a purely individual act, but an act situated at the intersection of the individual process and the group process.

        Alain Leroy can in fact be perceived as a “plural singular” (Kaës 227)—that is to say a subject whose subconscious is crossed and fashioned by mental spaces shared with the other members of the group. Let us then observe the characters who form this group of belonging, notably Dubourg, Eva, the Minville brothers, Solange and Cyrille. In a double movement, Alain Leroy appeals to them and turns away. Even if the links between him and the others are qualified as “cowardly” in the note he leaves when he commits suicide, nevertheless they occupy a central place in the explanation of the suicide: “I am killing myself because you have not loved me, because I have not loved you. I am killing myself because our relationships were cowardly, to bring us together. I will leave on you an indelible stain.”[12] How can we understand this primordial place beyond the words used by Alain Leroy in a final process of rationalisation? That is to say of “logical yet artificial justification, which camouflages, without the user’s knowledge, the true motives (rational and subconscious) for certain of his judgments, his behaviour, his feelings, as these true motives could not be recognised without anxiety” (Ionescu, Jacquet and Lhote 234).

        The psychoanalyst René Kaës has conceptualised under the term phoric function—from the Greek word phorein, to bear—the process by which the subject in a group, by his individual characteristics, bears and is borne by what is operating in the group subconscious. A person who takes on a phoric function does not know he is bearing a load that the group is putting on him. He speaks or acts thinking that what he says or what he acts out belongs to himself whilst he is expressing the group’s subconscious. “For their own reasons, but also under the effect of a determination to which they are subjected, these subjects come to occupy in the link a certain place: as spokesperson, symptom-bearer, dream-carrier, etc.” (Kaës 104).

        Let us consider for a moment that Alain Leroy’s suicide testifies in the end to a phoric function as symptom-bearer for a group’s ill-being. Who are his former friends finally, if they are not individuals who share in the same multi-facetted drift? The individual characteristics of Alain Leroy—notably his narcissistic fragility sharpened by his impotence—facilitate his closeness and his connection to the subconscious of the group to which he belongs. If he lives his despair as belonging to him, he is also the one to bring to light or take in the ill-being of the Other. It is a sublimated ill-being that badly hides the latent aggressivity and denial in Dubourg; an ill-being accepted and calmed by drugs in Eva and her friends; an ill-being deceived by an aggressivity in the service of terrorism in the Minville brothers; an ill-being resembling boredom masked by worldliness in Solange, Cyrille and their guests. Thus, Alain’s despair is also that of his group. Eva told him: “Yes, we have amazing friends. They think time changes them. So they run around like mad not knowing what they’re doing. Having children, making deals, writing books. Or else they kill themselves (…).” Killing oneself is thus one choice among others that characterises the subjects of this group or linking them secretly between themselves, beyond the distances. It is therefore a last sign of belonging to his group that sends Alain into this final gesture and into the personal words that both throw back to a collective disaffection beyond him. This consideration takes on a very special light in the singular context of the film referring back to a transition between two worlds: the new world shown in image and already evanescent, calls up another where demonstrations and noise from the barricades give a new shape to the desires of a generation seeking for new destinies and new unimpeded enjoyment.

Translated from the French by Martin Bray.

Works Cited and Consulted

Audio-visual resources

“Louis Malle and Françoise Sagan.” Jacques Ertaud. Sept jours du monde. ORTF, (French national broadcaster) 15th November 1963. Television. Included in the Bonus DVD Video of The Fire Within, 2005.

“Nos quatre cents coups (our wild lives), interview with Philippe Soupault.” Luc Bérimont, France Inter (French national radio), 1964. Included in a radio documentary by Stéphane Bonnefoi, Portrait au revolver, Jacques Rigaut, directed by Céline Ters for France Culture (French cultural radio station), in 2012.

Printed References

Assoun, Paul-Laurent. Leçons psychanalytiques sur l’angoisse. Paris, Economica, 2006. Print.

Aumont, Jacques and Michel Marie. L’analyse des films. Paris : Armand Colin, 2015. Print.

Aumont, Jacques. Aesthetics of film. 1983. Trans. And rev. Richard Neupert. Austin: U of Texas P, 1985. Print.

Cirelli, Laurent. Jacques Rigaut, Portrait tiré. Paris : La Dilettante, 1998. Print.

Drieu La Rochelle. The Fire Within. 1931. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Knopf, 1965. Print.

Ionescu, Serban, Marie Jacquet and Claude Lhote. Les mécanismes de défense, théorie et clinique. Paris : Nathan Université, 2001. Print.

Juignet, Patrick. Etats-Limites et passions narcissiques. Paris : Berger-Levrault, 1997. Print.

Kaës, René. Les Théories psychanalytiques du groupe. Paris : PUF, 1999. Print.

Morin, Edgar. L’Homme et la mort. 1951. Paris: Seuil, 1970. Print.

Palma, Paola. “Voix off narratives, du texte à l’écran. Les processus d’adaptation dans deux films de Louis Malle.” Cahiers de Narratologie [Online], 22 | 2012. Web. 11/05/18.

Scott Fitzgerald, Francis. The Great Gatsby. 1925. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1979. Print.

The Author

Erika Thomas obtained her PhD from the Sorbonne (Paris 3) and is Professor of Cinema and Visual Anthropology. Elle works at Lille catholic University and is a member of the research group Textes et Cultures (Artois University). He main research subjects include pictures and their links with culture, history and society (mainly in France) and the visual anthropology of Brazilian society. Her publications include Indiens du Brésil (in) visibilités médiatiques (L’Harmattan, 2012) and Le cinéma brésilien, du cinéma novo à la retomada (L’Harmattan, 2009).


[1The Fire Within, trans. Richard Howard, New York, Knopf, 1965. A second translation by Martin Robinson, entitled Will o’ the Wisp was published one year later. (Translator’s note)

[2] In view of the number of theses and articles dealing with this director (in the databases theses.fr and worldcat.org) we are obliged to recognise that unlike other directors of the same generation—like Godard or Truffaut—Louis Malle has aroused relatively little interest in university research: between 1984 and 2006, eleven theses dealt with this director (and none of them was particularly interested in the film considered here). In all, the forty-eight articles—published between 1969 and 2016—dealing specifically with the director or his films, include ten from journals and university works or from research. Among these, Palma’s article concerns The Fire Within—specifically the voice off in the film—in a perspective which is far from mine.

[3] As Louis Malle said in an interview with Marcel Martin: “it was necessary to find the fault lines by which the sympathy of the spectator could penetrate: softening the money question was an easy way to make the character more sympathetic. As he is, I think the character arouses a great tenderness through his exasperated humanity. We feel touched and concerned. The obsession with suicide haunts more people than one thinks, and the film has already aroused strong reactions which I was not expecting.” Les Lettres françaises, 10 October 1963.

[4] Jacques Rigaud committed suicide on November 6, 1929.

[5] About this other man who also committed suicide, present in his film, Louis Malle says: “I did not put this detail in so that the spectator could see it: they must be very attentive to spot it… It is a tribute to Scott Fitzgerald, whom I admire a lot. Alain could be a character from Scott. He also has on his desk Babylon Revisited, which inspired in me the episode of the barman and which is not in the novel.” Les Lettres françaises, idem.

[6] (Translator’s note) We have used the subtitles of The Fire Within as they appear in : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2EKCZ6Fof8&list=PLGuY1Js-RDIOI5-AAqkKeg-EyCst3kVK3

[7] This is the second reference to Fitzgerald in the film. The first comes in the sequence that takes place at the Flore as a restitution of a memory called up by someone Alain used to know, remembering one day when Alain showed some American tourists round the Ritz and spoke of Scott Fitzgerald.

[8] This character also illustrates the divisions in the protagonist by being a double of his youth. He lives in the same room that Alain had taken at the Hotel du Quai Voltaire, drinks from the morning onwards like him, is also accompanied by a young American woman and follows him when he leaves the society party at the Lavaux’s.

[9] The figure of the double—which is played out in the film in a most explicit way in a last face to face encounter with Milou, (cf previous note)—is in fact strongly linked, from a psychoanalytical perspective, to the fragility of the patient. As André Green recalls in his analysis of The Double by Dostoyevsky (La Déliaison, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1992, p.311): “It is when the desire for annihilation appears, at the time when the subject aspires to nothing, that the salutary doubling operates: it becomes two. The fragile nature of threatened unity creates its reply as a remedy (…) for despair.”

[10] This image of a man looking at himself in a mirror is not without reference to the famous mirror stage conceptualised by Lacan. This writer postulates that this face to face with the mirror in order to draw from it a feeling of unity repeats itself in existence when we face events potentially compromising our narcissistic unity.

[11] Notably for what in this film concerns the question of the double, the mirror as a metaphorical element and the feeling of lack in Alain Leroy’s path and his act of committing suicide.

[12] It is a note left for his group of friends – and not to his wife Dorothy—since the Drieu La Rochelle text pursues this and completes it: “I well know that one lives better dead than alive in the memories of one’s friends” (160).