5. Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within) (Louis Malle, 1963)
Louis Malle is normally not grouped together with the nouvelle vague filmmakers, partly because his background was very different to theirs (he came from a wealthy family), partly because he always worked in film rather than writing about it first and partly because his brilliant debut, Elevator to the Gallows (or Lift to the Scaffold, as it is also known), was made in 1958 and thus pre-dated the supposed birth of the nouvelle vague in about 1959/1960. However, if Lift, a superb thriller elevated (if you will excuse the pun) to greatness by Miles Davis’s stunning jazz score, is somehow considered as being outside the usually accepted parameters and time period of the French new wave, Le Feu Follet demands inclusion in any serious consideration of the great French films of the 1960s.
It is the story of Alain, a recovering addict (he is an alcoholic in the film, having been a heroin addict in the source novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which was written in 1931 and based on the true story of his friend and fellow writer, Jacques Rigaut) who is desperately trying to find a reason not to kill himself. He visits his old friends, but finds himself increasingly disconnected with them: they seem to have resigned themselves to an almost unfeeling attitude to life, as the only way to survive. Finally, unable to convince himself that there is any good reason to remain alive, Alain takes his own life.
Music was often central to the great new wave films: having grown up in post-war France, the likes of Godard, Truffaut and Demy were absolutely saturated not only in French popular music but American pop and jazz. Malle is a particularly deft user of a soundtrack, with the landmark score for Scaffold only being surpassed in his films by his use of the great French composer Erik Satie’s music in Le Feu Follet. Satie himself effectively went mad at the end of his life, placing one piano on top of another to try and generate new sounds, and perhaps Malle recognised a kinship between his music and the state of mind of the increasingly disillusioned Alain. Certainly, Satie’s ambient, “barely-there” piano is the perfect soundtrack to Alain’s slow, and ultimately permanent, withdrawal from the world.