19 May 2010

The Eternal Overcast of the Troubled Mind

Existential angst. A curse of the self aware. Introspection colored by philosophical musings. It's the occasional inability to merely take the next step in one's life without first contemplating its ramifications or those of the previous steps. Throw into the mix something like an addiction, or a deviancy or a mental quirk and you've got the recipe for a tortured soul. Or at least one that needs a lot of attention.

You've also got the recipe for a French film of the New Wave era -- Le feu follet (1963) (the English title is The Fire Within). It's directed by Louis Malle who adapted the script from a 1930's French novel that was undoubtedly inspired by the work of F Scott Fitzgerald. That for Malle this is more homage than rip off is evidenced by references to Fitzgerald during the film.

Some films seem trivialized by presenting a synopsis. It's like being asked of a complicated person: "what's he like?" You can summarize but it hardly does justice. But one must, so in this instance I'll cheat by copy and pasting IMDb's plot summary:

Life has become unbearably painful for Alain who is in his early 30s. He once used alcohol to dull the pain. His estranged wife in New York has paid for a cure at a clinic in Versailles and sends an emissary, one of the many woman he has known, to see how Alain is. She sees only the surface as does his doctor, who says it's time for Alain to leave the clinic. He goes to Paris the next morning and has lunch with old friends, a rendezvous in a cafe and is invited to a dinner party. Will Alain make a connection that will change his mind about ending it all?

Le feu follet is like a lot of great films in that is an invitation. In this case Malle is inviting viewers to follow the main character, Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet) through various parts of Paris. But it is also a journey through one man's mind and we all know the curious directions such expeditions can take. The mind, the old ad campaign said, is a terrible thing to waste. But it can be a wonderful topic for a film. 

The pace of Le feu follet seems languorous. Malle might have added a fist fight or a car spun out of control or a sex scene. Through much of the movie I was hoping for such a diversion. Not bored, but uncomfortable by the meditative pace. Yet by the last frame I was exhilarated. It had all come together into a wonderful whole. A rich melange of episodes, some curious, others intoxicating. Isn't the thinking process the same? Lots of randomness, lots of going nowhere until viola

Here's an overused and overrated word: underrated. But sometimes it must be used, as in any discussion of Malle among great directors. If you need proof look no further then what a compelling film he made out the story of a recovering alcoholic wandering Paris. For one it is beautifully shot, serving as it does as another example of the powerful advantage black and white has over color cinema photography. Pacing in such a film is critical and Malle got it just right. The casting is spot on. Finding the right actor to play Alain was a chore for Malle given the somewhat autobiographical nature of the story.

Donet looks by turns like he must be the French first cousin of Tony Curtis or the Gaelic uncle of Jude Law. He's as good an actor -- if not better -- than both. In Le feu follet he carries the weight of a million woes and personal demons with nary a gesticulation nor frown. It's an incredible responsibility to have the camera trained on you for almost the entire running length of a film and Donet is equal to the task. He expresses more with his eyes or a turn of the head than many actors do with a long soliloquy.

Our Alain visits old haunts and friends. This includes a stop at an upscale opium den where Jeanne Moreau has a cameo. There is also an outdoor cafe where Alain's old army buddies rendevous and visits to flats both bohemian and upper, upper crust. It's a whirlwind 24 hours for a normal bloke but again not the usual stuff of movies. But the French New Wave was not just about different ways of telling stories but of telling a different sort of tale. Why not the curious meanderings of a troubled man?

Don't show Le feu follet to your 14 year old boy, especially if he's been fed on a steady diet of Spiderman and Iron Man (this is Thinking Man!). But for a mature person such as yourself....

This is an explorations of a character. Sad, troubled, sympathetic and altogether mysterious. It is not afraid to leave much to our imagination. I've written often, including in my last post, about admiring films that do not fill in all the blanks. I really don't mind if a film leaves me with room to think. I thank the director for dignifying me in such a way.

Le feu will also leave you yearning for Paris. A city to be fallen in love with again and again. Yes, the photography here would flatter Hoboken, but anyone having seen Paris will know that Le fou is a mere hint of its considerable charms.

This may well be a movie to fall in love with repeatedly. For me it was love at first sight.

1 comment:

Harman said...

Thanks for this wonderful review. Makes me want to watch it immediately.