Maurice Ronet brings electrifying depth and restraint to his brilliant, moving performance as an alcoholic writer who, despite the attention of sympathetic friends in Paris, can find no reason not to “leave.” Louis Malle’s humane, engrossing film ends with Alain Leroy’s suicide. “Poor Alain” (as he is repeatedly referred to), many commentators feel, spends his last day searching for some reason to live; but I see it as his veiled preparation for death—a motive Alain hides even from himself.
Writer-director Malle’s Le feu follet updates future suicide Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel about another actual suicide: poet Jacques Rigaut’s, in 1929. It is steeped in the ill humors of a dead-ended life. Feeling unloved, Leroy at least found a modicum of order in the Versailles asylum at which his estranged wife, who lives in New York, paid to have him “cured” of his drinking habit; now the private hospital has set him loose. Leroy starts drinking again; someone at a party informs him that his wife plans on divorcing him. We do not know whether the comment is accurate; but either way, in tandem with other receptions, it impresses on Leroy his vast vulnerability.
Quick shots of Alain from alternate perspectives suggest in one scene his interior commotion and his being at odds with himself. In one amazing passage in a public washroom, Alain weighs a homoerotic encounter as a possible way out of his dilemma.
Le feu follet is full of exceptionally fine feeling—although emotional illiterates who come armed with smug quips (“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem”) had best stay away—from this film, from all people except their own limited kind.
One of Alain’s former lovers (Jeanne Moreau, wonderful): “I should never have let him go.”
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