Director: Louis Malle
Writer: Louise de Vilmorin
Cinematographer: Henri Decaë
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Marc Bory
Studio/Run Time: Nouvelles Éditions de Films, 90 mins.
The Fire Within
Director: Louis Malle
Writer: Malle, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (book)
Cinematographer: Ghislain Cloquet
Starring: Maurice Ronet, Lena Skerla
Studio/Run Time: Nouvelles Éditions de Films, 108 mins.
Two early Malle films engage love and death with wildly different results
Five years and three films separate The Lovers and The Fire Within, two early entries from French director Louis Malle, yet certain motifs resonate between them. Both concentrate on stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet (respectively)—the star-crossed couple from Malle’s full-length directorial debut, Elevator to the Gallows—and the bourgeois culture in which these characters find themselves trapped. Whereas other Malle soundtracks feature American jazz from Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, both Lovers and Fire Within are scored by the evocative strains of European classical music: Brahms’ string quartets in the former, Satie’s “Gymnopédie” to devastating effect in the latter.
Building on the astronomical success of his first feature, follow-up Lovers again casts blonde heroine Moreau as a dissatisfied bourgeois wife, stifled by her husband but also growing weary of her polo-playing lover. As a stranger gives her a lift back to her house for an awkward dinner, irreversible events are set in motion, leading to a climactic love scene between her and this newcomer.
With Moreau’s rapturous face captured in close-up, her hands clenching into fists as le petit mort approaches, the film became the center of an obscenity trial in the United States, winding up in the Supreme Court. It was here that the famous dictum on pornography, “I know it when I see it,” came to pass. In the accompanying commentary, Malle simply says the resultant controversy stems from the fact that “the camera panned to the window 30 seconds later.” While hard to believe it was considered obscene 50 years ago, modern viewers might instead be shocked today by how unrealistically Moreau falls for a complete stranger in a single night.
Malle regarded 1963’s harrowing Fire Within as a “sort of nocturnal poem.” It’s an intimate portrait of a damaged man’s final 48 hours, with Maurice Ronet’s character, Alain, finally resurfacing after a failed marriage in America and a stint in a Versailles sanatorium. Clean and sober, he revisits his old haunts, in search of a past as untenable and distant as the States.
Doomed American icons loom: pictures of Marilyn Monroe, F. Scott Fitzgerald paperbacks. All the while, Satie’s poignant piano music furthers Alain’s isolation. An excruciating, bourgeois dinner acts as the fulcrum here as well, with Alain realizing that his friend’s benumbed marriages are as empty as his own life. In the end, these two films act as reflective opposites: If falling irredeemably in love seems impossible in The Lovers, the suicide of The Fire Within is inversely impossible to avoid.