Unlike his reflections on The Lovers, Louie Malle's thoughts on The Fire Within were almost entirely positive, perhaps more positive than they had been when he initially viewed the film. And just as its maker had higher regards for it, so too did I. Like the earlier film, the Fire Within depends largely on one performance. Here, it comes from Maurice Ronet, the other star of Elevator to the Gallows (who looks vaguely like Jude Law). However, Malle has more restraint here than he did with Jeanne Moreau, and the film (and the performance) consequently comes alive in a way The Lovers never really did for me.
The plot is an extremely interesting - and extremely sad - exploration of the suicidal mind. It is roughly based on a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle about his friend, surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut, who committed suicide. (Rochelle himself took his own life, largely due to his misguided support of the Vichy government - though obviously having written a book about suicide, it wasn't too far down on his list of things he was interested in.) Ronet plays a reformed playboy who is nearing the end of an extended stay at a hospital where he had gone to kick his alcoholism. After a night with a former flame, he returns to the hospital, only to venture out again into the city to reconnect with his old friends, hoping to make one last connection to save him from himself.
What's most interesting and affecting about The Fire Within, particularly to someone like me who has been personally affected by suicide, is that the film seems less about the person who commits suicide than about the people who surround him or her. This might seem strange since everyone who isn't Ronet seems to fade into the background - the movie really is exclusively about him, as much as Cléo from 5 to 7 is only about Cléo. No other character has any sort of evolution in the film. No character even gets to experience or respond to his death, as the film ends on Ronet's shot to the heart. But the character is constantly reaching out to everyone else in the movie, and it seems only to emphasize his isolation that his encounters seem so out of focus. The camera is complicit in this absence of empathy, and we remain unconvinced Ronet will really do the deed until it's finally done. The ending words of the film don't seem to come from the protagonist as much as they are seared into the conscience of his acquaintances, or at least that's how they seem to me, so full of guilt and anger, so devoid of relief and sensitivity.
It's no surprise that Malle was proud of the film. Of the three films in the collection up to this point in his career, it's the first mature, towering work. Elevator in the Gallows is a more enjoyable, possibly even more perfect film. But The Fire Within is a complex exploration of a very personal and very serious question: as Shakespeare famously asked, "To be or not to be?" That Malle was able to explore this question in such an effortless and moving way speaks to his developing talent, and says a great deal about the masterpieces he would go on to make.