Louis Malle

The Fire Within (1963, Louis Malle)

Director Malle sets up The Fire Within as a series of events. They don’t feel like events–or even vignettes–because protagonist Maurice Ronet is so transfixing. As the film progresses and the viewer gets to know Ronet better, gets to understand him better, Fire changes. The film is always about Ronet’s plans, Ronet’s actions and how the viewer anticipates them, but once it becomes clear he’s not in control… Well, it doesn’t just change the last third of the film, it changes the first two-thirds of it as well.

Ronet is a recovering alcoholic. He can’t get out of his recovery clinic. The first third of the film, after beautifully establishing his normal days by showing an abnormal one (visiting with his lover–and his absentee wife’s friend–played by Léna Skerla), is mostly just Ronet by himself. Fire is about monotony but never monotonous. Malle has to establish Ronet’s routines to best break them later.

The majority of the film takes place during Ronet’s day trip to Paris. He’s suicidal, saying goodbye to friends from his old life as an amiable, popular Parisian drunk. He’s not an artist, but he’s friends with artists. He’s not an intellectual, but he’s friends with intellectuals.

Fire is simultaneously an exploration of Ronet’s alcoholism (after the fact) and the society he’s abandoned. Malle’s able to juxtapose the two so successfully because of the film’s structure–Ronet moves from conversation to conversation, person to person, moment to moment. It wouldn’t work without the gorgeous black and white photography from Ghislain Cloquet but, technically, the marvel is Suzanne Baron’s editing. Whether cuts between scenes or cuts between shots, Baron brings a calm to even the most hectic moments. Given Malle frequently cuts to closer shots to emphasis Ronet, then out again to longer ones (though never too long, even outdoors), Baron’s ability to maintain that tranquility is even more impressive.

Acting-wise, Ronet is the whole show. He’s surrounded by great performances, but they’re all in small parts. Jeanne Moreau is wonderful, but it’s basically a cameo. Same goes for Bernard Noël. They’re great, but they’re great because Ronet’s so great. The chemistry between the actors, how Malle has a slightly different style for each interaction, all while maintaining a particular deliberateness.

The Fire Within devastates, but it’s also glorious in its intensity. It’s relentless and breathtaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Malle; screenplay by Malle, based on a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle; director of photography, Ghislain Cloquet; edited by Suzanne Baron; production designer, Bernard Evein; released by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France.

Starring Maurice Ronet (Alain Leroy), Jean-Paul Moulinot (Dr. La Barbinais), Bernard Noël (Dubourg), Jeanne Moreau (Eva), Alexandra Stewart (Solange) and Léna Skerla (Lydia).


Atlantic City (1980, Louis Malle)

For a film with quite a bit of grounded violence, Atlantic City is pretty genial. Director Malle shoots in close medium shots; there’s not a lot of grandeur to his shots. Atlantic City has grandeur, as a setting, but Malle doesn’t go out of his way to stylize it. Cinematographer Richard Ciupka shoots the whole thing with a fuzzy brightness.

That geniality is sort of strange, given the film opens with lead Burt Lancaster peeping on next door neighbor Susan Sarandon. He’s an old flunky, taking caring of a boss’s widow (a fantastic Kate Reid); Sarandon is the sort of young dreamer who’s trying to make it in the casinos. She wants to be a dealer, but her creepy older man mentor Michel Piccoli might have other plans for her.

The film takes place in a couple days; it’s what happens when Sarandon’s husband (an underwhelming Robert Joy) shows up with his pregnant mistress, who happens to be Sarandon’s sister (Hollis McLaren in a nothing role). Lancaster ends up helping Joy out, which gives him a taste of the leading man gangster lifestyle he never had in his own youth.

Lancaster’s wonderful in the role, but Malle and writer John Guare never want to hold him accountable for anything. The viewer isn’t supposed to judge the character, though Joy (and Piccoli) get run through the ringer. It’s very uneven and the film would probably work better as Lancaster’s wish fulfillment. Instead, Sarandon occasionally gets promoted to protagonist and it’s problematic because she’s kind of a sap. The character, not Sarandon. Sarandon comes off as way too smart for the character. It’s worse when the character gets a smart line, because it just feels like Sarandon got fed up playing such a shallow character and ad libbed logically.

Look fast for Wallace Shawn.

Atlantic City has a lot of thoughtful, solid scenes, but it doesn’t come together in the end. Malle’s mixing too many things and trying to force Guare’s script into places it doesn’t go. The film asks the viewer to pity Lancaster because he’s old, which is frequently uncomfortable.

It starts slow, gets going, has big problems in the third act but gets a last minute reprieve with the finish. It ought to be a whole lot better though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Malle; written by John Guare; director of photography, Richard Ciupka; edited by Suzanne Baron; music by Michel Legrand; production designer, Anne Pritchard; produced by Denis Héroux and John Kemeny; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Burt Lancaster (Lou), Susan Sarandon (Sally), Robert Joy (Dave), Hollis McLaren (Chrissie), Michel Piccoli (Joseph) and Kate Reid (Grace).


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