Cinema Club: Le Feu Follet (1963)

Posted on December 3, 2013

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Le Feu Follet (Louis Malle, 1963)

Alain, a former alcoholic has completed his rehabilitation in a Versailles clinic. He has absolutely zero interest in rejoining every day life though, preferring the comfort of the clinic. After a visit from a friend of his wife and a short history of a tragic almost-couple, he decides to end his life. Before performing the act, he heads to Paris for one last day of life, in an attempt to maybe find a reason to keep on living. He visits his old drinking haunts where old friends flit between excitement at seeing him and lamenting his health. He has a long walk with his friend Dubourg, who chastises Alain for his refusal to grow old, calling him cowardly in the process. His old friends have either moved on or moved deeper into excess, leaving Alain in some sort of strange limbo. After giving in and taking a drink, the final stages of the film see him at the dinner party of an old friend, where Alain confronts various people with his depression. The film ends as Alain himself ends.

The third currently unrecorded Harald Math has the working title of ‘The Enormous Last Day of Life’. That is essentially what this film is. It is a man, empty, incapable of love, giving himself one last chance to find something. The almost inevitable suicide embellishes otherwise mundane conversations and happenings during Alain’s last day. A group of children running past him and Dubourg in the park becomes something to be cherished, as opposed to an annoyance. His final conversations with each of his friends, potentially meaningless, take on layers of meaning with the knowledge that its the last time. Practically each one makes reference to another meeting, be it lunch or a trip to Egypt, almost in hope rather than expectation.

The flip side of this is that everything also comes across as utterly pointless and hopeless. This is demonstrated beautifully at the cafe just prior to Alain’s first drink in months. When everything is hopeless, everything is disgusting. Life is precious, and most of it is wasted on the mundane. Even what we considered exciting changes. Stories that at the time were engrossing become blotches on the past. The Stewart Lee phrase, ‘gradually decreasing the quality of your own obituary’ feels very apt at various times here.

This most certainly isn’t a sit down and giggle film. It is funny at times, but funny in the bleakest of ways, funny by way of hopelessness. What it is however, is a film of incredibly strong dialogue and absolutely wonderful cinematography. It really is beautifully shot. At no point does the camera feel like it is doing anything more than accentuating the quality of the characters, the quality of the dialogue. Only during Alain’s final speech of sorts is there anything approaching realization of the camera, even here it adds to the speech with quick cuts. The whole thing is in black and white as well, although the story and feel of the film leads me to use the term ‘grey’ as opposed to ‘black and white’.

And this is a grey film. I use that as a compliment. A truly compelling and heart-wrenching piece of cinema.

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Posted in: Cinema