The Portrayal of Depression in Louis Malle’s The Fire Within
The Fire Within (1963) is a drama film written and directed by Louis Malle, which goes by the title Le Feu follet in French, meaning “The Manic Fire” or “Wil-o’-the-Wisp”. It’s based on the 1931 novel Will O’ the Wisp by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which itself was inspired by the life of the French surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut. The latter’s works frequently talked about suicide and, in 1929 at the age of 30, as Rigaut had announced, he shot himself, using a ruler to make sure the bullet would pass through his heart.
Malle’s film tells the story of Alain Leroy, a recovering alcoholic who has spent time at a rehabilitation clinic in Versailles. His doctor, La Barbinas, urges him to leave because his alcoholism has been “cured”. La Barbinas tells Alain that “Life is good,” to which Alain replies after the doctor has left the room, “Good for what, doctor?”
Still suffering from depression, Alain intends to end his life, but he first decides to visit his friends in Paris one last time, trying to find a reason to continue living. His perceived absence of meaning in life remains after his interactions and time in Paris. He finds no meaning in the different paths his friends have taken: the materialistic, practical life of the ‘mature’ adult; the hedonistic, escapist life; or the life of the political revolutionary.
Alain is materially affluent and good-looking; he receives affection and love from women, and he can enjoy the kind of comfortable, bourgeois lifestyle that his friends pursue. However, his friends’ bourgeois existence feels empty and worthless to him. All of his positive attributes — and the comforts, pleasures, and social connections available to him — feel insubstantial; they are insufficient to sustain his will to carry on. And so, just like Rigaut, he carries out his planned suicide and shoots himself in the heart.
American director Wes Anderson was influenced by Malle — his film The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), in particular, drew from The Fire Within, with the translated line “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow” appearing in it.
Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s film Oslo, August 31st (2011), is loosely based on Will O’ the Wisp and it certainly pays homage to The Fire Within, with the director discussing its influence in an interview for the Criterion Collection. Trier’s reimagining of Malle’s The Fire Within is imbued with the director’s own unique style, of course, and is set in contemporary Norway. Also, the protagonist, Anders (played brilliantly by Anders Danielsen Lie), is not a recovering alcoholic but a recovering heroin addict. Oslo, August 31st is the second film in Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy”, the first being Reprise (2006) and the third being The Worst Person in the World (2021), both also starring Danielsen Lie. The latter film received widespread critical acclaim, with Renate Reinsive winning the award for Best Actress at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
Oslo, August 31st won the Best Film and Best Cinematography awards at the Stockholm International Film Festival (SIFF). I can highly recommend watching it along with The Fire Within to see how both directors decided to depict the story told in Will O’ the Wisp. Like The Fire Within, Oslo, August 31st portrays the stagnancy, loneliness, detachment, and melancholy of depression in a realistic way — and viewers may find it more compelling than Malle’s 1963 film, which could be perceived as slightly pretentious. (Side note: another excellent contemporary film that represents the felt experience of depression well is Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.)
While Trier’s 2011 film deserves a lot of credit for how it accurately portrays the anxiety, depression, and frustration that addicts struggle with on their road to recovery, I want to focus on The Fire Within, partly because this is the film that Trier is paying homage to, so it’s important to understand the elements that inspired him; but also because as a film that came out in the 60s, I think it’s refreshing to find in it a depiction of depression that viewers can relate to, and not one that relies on tropes and inaccuracies. This was likely helped by the fact that Malle himself struggled with depression before turning 30, so he had personal experience to draw on, too.
There are many lines from the character Alain that express different aspects of depression. For example, he says, “It’s not feelings of anxiety, doctor. It’s one long feeling, of constant anxiety.” Anxiety, of this sort, often accompanies depression. In some cases, it may be a form of existential anxiety (related to concerns about death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness, which can make anxiety protracted and hard to shake). The author Andrew Solomon talked about this kind of experience in The Noonday Demon (2001), his memoir of depression:
There is a moment, if you trip or slip, before your hand shoots out to break your fall, when you feel the earth rushing up at you and you cannot help yourself, a passing, fraction-of-a-second terror. I felt that way hour after hour after hour. Being anxious at this extreme level is bizarre. You feel all the time that you want to do something, that there is some affect that is unavailable to you, that there’s a physical need of impossible urgency and discomfort for which there is no relief, as though you were constantly vomiting from your stomach but had no mouth.
He also said, “The anxiety phase of my first depression lasted six months. It was incredibly paralyzing.” Another aspect of depression that Alain gives voice to is the depletion of motivation and energy; he says, “You talk about my willpower, but that’s where my sickness lies.” Indeed, depression involves the loss of vitality, which is necessary for willpower — for wanting to do things, even basic things, and for having the drive to take action.
Alain also complains that “Life flows too slowly in me, so I speed it up. I set it right.” This again speaks to the lack of vitality seen in depression, how the body and mind seem to be lacking something essential — the ‘life force’, for want of a better word — and so it’s understandable that individuals suffering from this malaise will try to correct it. A common coping mechanism is some form of addiction that provides spikes of energy and joy, which may be an addiction to alcohol, stimulants, sex, porn, food, and gambling. Alain visits his favourite old hotel in Paris, and after he leaves, the bartender remarks, “Poor boy. He was so full of life.”
Another common feature of depression is the sense of emptiness. While persistent and intense sadness and low mood characterises the condition, sometimes there is no feeling at all — a numbness, which can actually feel worse than the negative emotional states. Alain describes this state when he says, “I feel completely sterilized, body and soul.”
Anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure or joy from things one used to enjoy) is also part and parcel of depression, and we see this in the opening scene of The Fire Within, where Alain and Lydia are having sex, the latter visibly enjoying the experience, and the former not, instead being absorbed by troubling thoughts. The narrator notes, “Once again the feeling had eluded him, like a snake between stones.” Depression lowers the ability to enjoy sex (as it does with many other normally pleasurable things); Alain tries to enjoy it but is unable to. Lydia says, “Poor Alain. You look so uncomfortable.” When Lydia leaves, she says to Alain, “I know I’m leaving you with yourself enemy, yourself.” This pretty much sums up what one’s mind and thoughts can feel like in a state of depression: truly bad company.
In one scene, Alain is unable to enjoy even the simple pleasure of people-watching when sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Paris. We see him looking visibly anxious and melancholic, fidgeting in his seat and staring vacantly at others, a scene that is complemented by the haunting music of Erik Satie. It’s here that he takes his first alcoholic drink after months of rehabilitation.
When they’re together, Alain tells Lydia, “Don’t go. Don’t leave me.” He is desperate for human connection and affection, yet at other times he pushes people away. At the rehabilitation clinic, there are two people who show affection towards him: a fellow patient and the doctor’s wife. But he rejects their friendliness, as if afraid of human intimacy. Herein lies one of the painful paradoxes of depression: the wish to connect with others exists alongside the desire to isolate oneself. What is helpful one avoids; but also, what should be restorative — human connection — is often not felt. There is a barrier that prevents true intimacy.
Film critic Roger Ebert described The Fire Within as a “triumph of style”. Its style is distinct from Trier’s Oslo, August 31st in several ways, although there are similarities, too (Malle was a French New Wave director, and Trier’s films also show this influence, although he merges multiple styles, including social realism, and he is known for techniques such as the use of handheld, slightly unsteady cameras, montage, and voiceover). Malle’s film, meanwhile, features evocative black-and-white cinematography, fluid camera motion, the solo piano music of Satie for the score, and the streets of Paris — all very typical of the French New Wave. Another difference that stood out to me is that the ending in Trier’s film feels far more tragic than in Malle’s, but I won’t go into detail about why here — I’ll again recommend watching both.
Oslo, August 31st, I think, will feel more relatable from the point of view of depression, addiction, and interpersonal relationships, and it is perhaps more bleak and honest, owing to the impactful performance from Danielsen Lie. Yet The Fire Within depicts depression in an equally valuable and truthful way, with many scenes and lines that are worth remembering.
The Fire Within is considered one of Malle’s darkest and most personal films, and in his 2006 Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin calls it “probably Malle’s best early film”. I’ve seen only one other film of his, a later one, My Dinner with Andre (1981), which I found very thought-provoking (it requires more concentration, though, as it is one long dialogue on various topics and existential themes). This film, I later learned, also features music from Satie (playing in the background). Based on these two very different films, it’s easy to see Malle’s unique style in action while also how he evolved as a director. I look forward to seeing the rest of his work.