It was Louis Malle's sexually suggestive Les Amants from 1958, in which Jean Moreau writhed in the moonlight to a swelling Brahms score, that generated controversy, but it's Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within) from 1963 that finds the New Wave's most capricious director addressing truly modern concerns. "A harsh subject, and a depressing movie" was Malle's assessment of this unstinting, unsentimental and compelling portrait of an alcoholic writer's last days, though the director also maintained that of all his early films, this was the most satisfying. In less sensitive hands it might have degenerated into maudlin melodrama. Instead it's an acutely observed, clinically precise film about the lure of oblivion that conveys everything about its tortured protagonist in small incidents, tiny gestures, and a powerfully restrained performance by the star of Malle's moody thriller debut Ascenseur Pour l'Echafaud, Maurice Ronet.
Alain Leroy (Ronet) is a thirtysomething writer of some renown who has been confined to a rehab clinic in Versailles where he's been receiving treatment for an alcohol-induced breakdown. His doctor deems him cured, but Alain is reluctant to leave the security of his room at the sanatorium. Nevertheless, he returns to Paris hoping, though not really expecting, that a night amid the chattering classes might re-ignite in him some spark of life. In their bored and detached manner, Alain's former friends demonstrate concern, though much of it expresses their dismay that the hard-partying playboy of old has been replaced by a restless, anxious teetotaller contemptuous of the urban bourgeoisie and its "gilded mediocrity". At a dinner party that night Alain hurls himself off the wagon and though next morning he returns to the safety of the sanatorium, nothing can shake his conviction that life, on these terms, is no longer worth living.
It's Malle's matter-of-factness that provides the film with its power, and though he isn't concerned with the details of Alain's past, Le Feu Follet has its own significant back-story. Malle adapted the screenplay from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's 1931 novel, which was itself inspired by the drug-induced suicide of surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut. La Rochelle, a Parisian essayist who in the 1920s dabbled in dada, subsequently embraced Nazi ideology and collaborated with the Occupation. By the end of the war he'd revised his opinion but it was too late, and in 1945 he committed suicide, disillusioned with the reality of the Third Reich's Romantic rhetoric. This sense of shame, betrayal and self-loathing underpins Le Feu Follet, even though for Alain its source is the more acceptable notion of artistic authenticity versus bourgeois compromise.
Le Feu Follet is a film about Alain's epic crisis of confidence rather than addiction itself. Alain's friend, relieved that his own youthful dreams have given way to the certainties of middle age, accuses Alain of being trapped in adolescence. Alain is certainly morbid and self-absorbed, but he maintains an impossibly zealous idealism. "I started to drink while waiting for things," he says. "Then I realised I spent my whole life waiting." In that respect Malle's film has less to do with the endless thirst portrayed in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, and more in common with Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas. Neither Figgis nor Malle blink as their protagonists prepare to turn out their own lights. Like Figgis, Malle's direction is both artful and naturalistic. The only emotional trigger here - and it's as efficient as the actual one Alain fingers in his chaotic sanatorium bedroom - is Malle's use of Erik Satie's 'Gymnopédies' piano pieces, which run through the film like a lullaby, goading Alain towards death.
A criticism often levelled against Malle is that, compared with his New Wave peers, his work bears no distinct signature. It's true that he was determined never to walk the same ground twice, and, by the director's own admission, it was emotions that stirred him, rather than ideas. What does mark his films, from Le Feu Follet through to Atlantic City and Damage, is a suspicion of bourgeois propriety, and a belief that the heart can never be denied, however outrageous its demands. The Fire Within - the phrase as much as the film - stands as a powerful expression of this overlooked director's abiding concerns.