Sex, Suicide and Satie. The Fire Within. The Cinema of Louis Malle Part 2

The protagonist of The Fire Within is a depressed, alcoholic writer. Great. Does he play the saxophone? He’s suicidal but there are limits. The Fire Within is mostly what our hero lacks, although it could mean conflict or what will eventually prevail. Pointless nitpicking but while we’re here one of the subtitles to Louis Malle’s Lift To The Scaffold was ‘poor show’, an odd choice considering there was no guest appearance by Terry-Thomas. We start in rehab, in bed with an intelligent, beautiful women who will do anything to help, one of several offers throughout. He’d rather suffer. ‘Once again the feeling has eluded him.’ Comparing reality with what you think should be happening is self-defeating. So he carries on doing it.


He is an Algiers veteran – a back story shared by the killer in Lift To The Scaffold, also played by Maurice Ronet. Jean Paul Belmondo or Gerard Depardieu have more charisma but Ronet’s perfect as a vapid drifter. As with Lift To The Scaffold, there is the highest quality cinematography and music which will last forever, this time by Erik Satie. Roger Ebert, the best film critic, recommends this highly, as do I, the worst film critic, but this is an anti-depression blog, with a fewer-people-should-commit-suicide bias so I must point out that it’s better to stop banging your head against a brick wall. If nothing else it’s nice when you stop.  Our hero prefers the head/wall interface solution.

Like Leaving Las Vegas, this is based on a true story. A young man has supposedly seen too much of life and is certain it will never get any better. I was also convinced of this, as an especially tiresome teenager. Which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Decades later I remember being shamed by a story in the self help book What Happy People Know. A man lost his business and many friends and employees in 9/11. He coped better than I did with ‘only’ a difficult divorce, involving children, heavy drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment, sexual exploration that went further than it needed to – right round the transgender spectrum and back – even dabbling in fetish sex work, (Not that there is anything wrong with that… but it’s not really me. And the clients deserved someone better looking.) There was the mid life crisis that hits even rich, successful people. It was bleak but then most of the planet wouldn’t mind loafing about with easy access to delirium and debauchery,  in London, the city of infinite possibilities. It could have been worse.


Paris eventually calls our hero out of his rehab half-life, although it fails to satisfy his fastidious nature. Among the irritations: the conversation of his haute bourgeoise friends – an entirely valid reason to commit suicide. One of the smug prats thinks western eroticism is based on good and evil, transgression and original sin. Really? I thought the reproductive imperative is triggered by an hour-glass figure, swaying hips, the uncontrollable desire to bury one’s face in a pair of insistently protuberant…be that as it may, perhaps something was lost in translation.  I can’t endorse suicide but I did share the hero’s distaste for dinner party drivel.

I really didn’t like the criticism of his friend’s happy family life. Very occasionally anti-depressants would whisper to me that suicide was an option. Being less of tortured aesthete than our hero, it didn’t appeal, mainly because there were also responsibilities towards children who eventually turned out as well as possible, (mostly through their hard work). That bond might have fixed this guy. In the 80s a flautist friend told a Bavarian doctor about his existentialist angst (he was a big Sartre fan). The cure? ’Get married and have children. You won’t have time to feel sorry for yourself’. We laughed at this small town, conservative wisdom yet…it’s one solution, though conceptual despair will sometimes seem like a luxury compared to family life.

Parents are happier than Philip Larkin ever was, sat there moaning on his own, or at least more satisfied. It’s also perfectly reasonable not to have children, of course, many fine people don’t, to their advantage.  If the big adventure doesn’t appeal, or a wise woman doesn’t use her wicked wiles to persuade men they should reproduce, as so often happens, at least get some feelgood medication, preferably not energy and libido-sapping anti-depressants, something with a bit of zing. The high life beats no life. Our hero tells some opium users they’re dead inside – (the book was based on on a Dadaist poet in the 1930s, when smoking opium was more prevalent), Even if true, it’s better than being actually dead. Existential fail, dude.


If you can’t find the ultimate love affair, help those radicalised by the Algerian war or lose that all-pervading anxiety, can’t you just settle for something less? So you can’t get some obscure cigarettes straight out of rehab. There’s a solution…


And If you mope into an an early grave you’ll also miss this great movie. Ennui? Idiocy, more like… A series of interviews and clips which greatly enhance the film. Paris then and now, and you learn who was an actor and who was an amateur with an ‘intriguing face.’

Beautifully packaged box set. available here       Seems I saved £71 picking up a freecycle copy. Only one left! Lucky me. For once.

Curiously, the disc stopped playing for a while, Maybe it thought I was too déclassé to be watching it or it wanted to remind me that life is so much preferable to the eternal void. Then, like Christ and Nigel Farage, and his three day resignation, it came back from the dead,

If our doomed writer hadn’t been so contemptuous of his married friend’s ‘mediocre certainties’ he might have discovered that, just as reproduction can alleviate depression, It can also cheat death. or at least give him a black eye.

And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence

save breed to brave him when he takes thee hence.

(‘brave’ = challenge in this context)

Shakespeare Sonnet 12

In short, cheer up, ffs. GRATITUDE!