Malle’s “Le feu follet” (1963): Friday, March 1


In the autumn of 1929, Jacques Rigaut, a lesser star of the surrealist and dadaist galaxies, and an addict, shoots a bullet in his heart. His friend, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, who at that time wasn’t yet seduced by Hitler, dedicates to him a number of his writings. Among these, Le feu follet (Will O’ The Wisp), published in 1931.

Having made Zazie, director Louis Malle travels at the beginning of the 1960s to Algeria with plans to shoot a political film. That film is never made. When Malle returns to France, he reads Drieu La Rochelle’s Feu follet. Without, perhaps, sharing his humors, Malle, like the main character of the book, is around 30 (about to turn 30, in fact) and not exactly at peace with himself. He starts working on an adaptation of the novel. (A second one will be made decades later by Joachim Trier – Oslo, 31. august.)

The result is the 1963 Feu follet (The Fire Within). A portrait of the noonday demon, melancholia. And, for Malle, a cathartic film, biographical in the sense of a conceptual portrait, capturing the overpowering gravitational pull that defines the character’s existence and leaving aside accidental resemblance. What resemblance there was – for example, Maurice Ronet, the lead actor, wore Malle’s clothes and handled Malle’s own pistol – remained behind closed doors.

For Ronet, it was one of his major roles, maybe the performance of his life, literally – he had no need to act the mix of charm and crushing alcoholic sadness. Delon, Belmondo and Plummer, dandies and writers were considered at times for the part. Mere speculation, but with Ronet it seems that Malle did find what the title of the book – and of the film – asked for. His very gestures seem touched by that foolish fire, the ignis fatuus, that draws travelers to their perdition, and which will curb, eventually, every human path.


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