Monday, February 9, 2009
Winter 1962-63 was bitterly cold in Europe. In England, whole squadrons of voracious Hitchcockian birds were attacking farmers feeding their livestock, while in Paris snow and ice coated the city. An ideal season to stretch out inside some cozy overheated Left Bank cinema full of Gauloise-puffing Frenchfolk and view one of the new films. There was Melville's Le Doulos showcasing the electric Belmondo, Jules Dassin's Phaedra with Melina Mercouri, Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie starring the moody Anna Karina, plus Contempt co-starring the popular Bardot and Piccoli. I saw a lot of movies in Paris that winter, but one that I had somehow missed
was Louis Malle's Le Feu Follet, featuring Maurice Ronet, who I'd seen and liked in Malle's early thriller, Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Recently, thanks to Netflix, I made up for that lacuna.
Tricked out in the unfortunate American title, The Fire Within, which makes it sound like one of May Sinclair's English novels about artist-geniuses, Le Feu Follet is a very good film about a rather gloomy subject--the last days in the life of Alain Leroy, a recovering alcoholic. Played by Ronet (an Alain Delon look-alike), who gives a brilliantly touching performance, Leroy seems both sadly tragic when we first meet him and larger than life when his friends tell of his earlier "legendary" alcohol-fueled amusing escapades. Louis Malle likened his film (one of the director's favorites) to a Chopin nocturne because of its lyrical, sometimes gloomy nocturnal qualities. Helping to heighten the mood is the melancholy solo piano music of Erik Satie.
Leroy has been undergoing treatment for alcoholism in a Versailles maison de santé, but declared cured by his doctor after four months, the patient is apprehensive about leaving. Calling what he feels--i.e., his many fears, including that of sexual impotency--a sense of constant anxiety. To his girlfriend Lydia, who pities him for being in the clinic, he confides that he actually likes it. "A patient's life is ordered and simple," he insists. "It shelters us." What frightens him are the temptations of life outside the gates. "Paris scares me," he tells her. And just to remind him of the dangers are the morbid Grand Guignol Paris newspaper clippings--one with the line, "Naked she lay there dead, her dying husband beside her"--that he hangs on his walls.
As the camera moves restlessly about his room echoing Alain's restless movements in front of a large mirror on the wall, it closes on the message he's scrawled and circled on the glass: "23 Juillet." An important date to him, obviously. Does he leave or does he die? Malle as a student had been struck by Albert Camus's existentialist statement that suicide is the only truly serious philosophical problem, and in this film it still haunts him.
In addition to Leroy's grim clippings, Malle's camera reveals his chess board, his copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited, a tiny American flag next to a contact sheet of photos of his American wife Dorothy--now in New York--who's paying for his treatment but who, he feels, doesn't believe that he can be cured. Finally, his doctor appears. Leroy is convinced that he wants to throw him out.
"I'll be gone by the end of the week," Leroy promises him.
"Alain," the doctor says as he goes out, "life is good."
Leroy calls after him, "Good for what, Doctor?"
Going over to his attaché case, Alain unwraps a scarf with an elegant pattern and removes a black, mean-looking killing machine--a German 9mm WWII Luger. Placing a cartridge in the gun's chamber, he points the muzzle at his face. That night in bed before turning off the light, the last thing he says is, "Tomorrow I kill myself."
The next morning Alain lays out his clothes with unusual care. True, not as elaborately as the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima on that day in 1970 when he committed seppuku, but Mishima had planned more than a year for his suicide, and his preparations were meticulous. Though Alain doesn't have as many shirts as Jay Gatsby and they aren't silver and gold, his wardrobe if less expensive is a good deal more tasteful. He carefully selects just the right tie from more than a dozen, the perfect pair of cufflinks for his French cuffs. There is a ritual to be followed on what may be the last day of his life.
Before leaving the clinic, Alain locks away his pistol and rips up the manuscript that he's been working on (a diary of sorts) since he arrived. A failed writer, he seems to accept the inevitability that everything he touches is doomed to failure. The trip he's about to undertake to Paris--"city of orgies," he sardonically calls it--is, as he replies to the woman at the clinic who asks, merely to cash a check and look up a few old friends. In fact, it's a matter of life and death.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's fifteen-hour epic film, Berlin, Alexanderplatz (1980), opens quietly with its hero, Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), released from jail after four years of incarceration for the murder of his girlfriend, walking through the prison courtyard. The hulking Biberkopf looks in amazing shape considering his long ordeal. The only sound his squeaking shoes. The only advice that of the guard at the door. "Don't look back," he warns him. Once out on the Berlin strasse, Biberkopf is so overwhelmed by the frightening city sounds of Weimar, Germany--honking car horns, booming internal combustion engines-- and the dizzying pace of its life, that he cowers and covers his ears.
As for Alain, though expecting the worst, he exits the clinic's heavy metal gates, glances around at the world with a fleeting smile of recognition that seems to say, "Oh there you are." He walks away swinging his arms in an almost carefree fashion. The racing cyclists going by to the accompaniment of a loud bullhorn, the heavy traffic that he dodges, nothing seems to faze him. On this decisive day in his life he plans to reach out for the gold ring, to try to reconnect with someone or something, to discover if there's any reason for him to live. Perhaps the image that most aptly characterizes Leroy's Paris quest is not the carousel but the moving sidewalk, the trotoir roulant--one of the revelations of the new century when it appeared at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900.
Leroy is in constant motion following his arrival in Paris. First, he drops in on the Quai Voltaire, the small hotel in the 7th where he used to live. Of course everyone there knows Monsieur Leroy. The two women behind the desk congratulate him on how well he looks, but the minute he's out of earshot one of them says, "Poor guy. He's really changed. His face.... His voice...." They both think he's been away in America, as does Charlie, the hotel bartender, who's clearly quite fond of him. While Charlie automatically mixes a scotch sour--once Alain's customary first drink of the day--he tells him of his old friends who never come in any more or only rarely when in town for the evening accompanied by hired female companions. "Married men," says the bartender, "they're all the same."
When it comes to drinking and making love, Charlie regards his former regular customer as an artist in his own right and worthy of a plaque at the hotel's front door proclaiming, "Here for several years lived Alain Leroy." The irony is unintended but inescapable to Leroy, burdened by his inability to do either one any more, not to mention his sense of failure as a writer. The plaques already out front are for three other celebrated artists who once actually stayed at the Voltaire: Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and Richard Wagner.
Alain fails to reach the friends he calls with the exception of one, Cyrille Lavaud, and they arrange to meet later that evening at a dinner party he's giving. As Alain is leaving, Charlie reminds him that he forgot his drink.
"I don't drink any more."
"I always said you drank too much."
Charlie and the woman from behind the desk watch the recovering alcoholic get into a cab.
"Poor boy," she says. "He was so full of life."
"And depression, too," says Charlie.
During Leroy's day in Paris, the friends he meets, despite their kindness, all fail him. Though it's been only four months that he's been away, it feels much longer to him and what's worse, as if time had made fools of them all. Where are their ambitious dreams of yesterday? His drinking pal Duborg, who once yearned to do something outstanding in Egyptology, appears to have settled for a cozy Bourgeois mediocrity consisting of his new girlfriend Fanny and, as Alain terms it, "playing daddy" to her two little girls. Leroy's former girlfriend Eva (in a lively cameo by Jeanne Moreau) has become the proprietor of a small uninteresting art gallery and a druggy. Marveling at how he's changed, she laughs and says, "You look like death warmed over." To which he replies, "You're no spring chicken yourself." Though fond of Eva, Alain turns his back on her and her drug-addled boyfriend. "Drugs are boring," he says, on his way out. "Just like life."
Moving on to the Boul' Mich and the Café Flore, Leroy cops his first drink in months, a leftover half-filled wine glass from his encounter with the Minville brothers, two political friends formerly active in the Algerian War who have just come out of prison. They dismiss him as "Pretty boy, Alain," with no politics at all. The dizzying effect of the drink is dramatic and when Alain arrives at the luxurious house of his former girlfriend Solange (Alexandra Stewart) and her wealthy boyfriend, Cyrille Lavaud (Jacques Sereys), he has to sleep it off for an hour or so before coming down to join their other guests already at the dinner table.
What follows is the dramatic climax of the film, a remarkable scene which in the chapter divisions of this stunning high-contrast black-and-white Criterion DVD print is ominously called, "The Last Supper." The implicit question: Who will betray him? As it turns out, and despite the efforts of some, almost all the dinner guests in one way or another will betray him. Their brittle, occasionally amusing conversation runs the gamut from Chinese eroticism to a longish anecdote about the drunken Leroy falling asleep on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But it's the exchanges that he has with both the sour egoist Brancion and the attractive Solange, in which he reveals his painful inability to touch the people around him, that prove to be quite affecting. Their effectiveness is enhanced by the director's artful choreography of the diner's movements around the dinner table. This extraordinary scene ends with the flustered, unhappy Alain going out into the rainy night after faithfully promising his hosts to join them for lunch the next day.
But the next day Alain is back in his room at the clinic finishing another book by Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Like Gatsby, Alain has discovered that his youth was a promise and a lie. And compounding the travesty, Alain himself was the liar. In Gatsby's innocence he, like Icarus, believed it possible to stop time and alter the past, but as Nick Carraway says, "You can't stop time." For his part, Alain refuses to grow old, refuses to accept mediocrity. His youthful hopes all gone now and in despair, he closes the pages of his book. Picking up his gun, Alain points the muzzle at his heart, pulls the trigger, and steps into eternity.
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