Eye For Film >> Movies >> Le Feu Follet (1963) Film Review
Le Feu Follet
Reviewed by: Ali Hazzah
Louis Malle's Feu Follet portrays the disintegration of Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet), ex fancy man, writer manqué, alcoholic-drug addict, and potentially suicidal depressive. Regarded by some as Louis Malle's finest early work, this is a sophisticated film that does not try to entertain. It does, however, accurately depict the state of mind of a spoiled fainéant, one who can no longer pretend he has a valid reason to live.
Things start off with Leroy in a hotel bed with a woman named Lydia (Léna Skerla). She's been sent by his American wife, Dorothy (who's never seen) to check up on him. Lydia's a former flame, one who continues to love Leroy in "a very particular way."
Now Leroy is actually playing hookie from rehab, some fancy Maison de la Santé, outside of Paris, where the resident drunks tend to say things such as: "Nothingness has no quality." (this is, after all, a French movie).
His private room, paid for by Dorothy, is chock-full of press clippings of Marilyn Monroe's then recent suicide, copies of Fitzgerald's later, nostalgic, gin-soaked oeuvre, fancy threads from better days and a loaded gun.
Lydia writes him a cheque, but not before she implores him to return with her to New York.
Leroy is soon back in Paris, hitching a ride with two Galeries Lafayette delivery men, to embark on his final bender, from which there is no coming back, unless he finds another way out, by confronting his past sober, and finding a way to survive the experience.
That he is unlikely to do so is the emotional tension explored by Malle in this dark film.
With a mood that evokes, among other things, the opening lines of Becket's Malone Dies, as well as Camus' Myth of Sisyphus, Feu Follet's plot toys with what philosopher Owen Flanagan has described as the alcoholic's "zone of control."
The film is, unmistakably, of its time and place, almost, in fact, an unwitting send-up, in some scenes, of New Wave cinema's more pretentious proclivities. In that regard, Erik Satie's grating piano score exacerbates the sporadic portentousness.
Slow-paced, depressing, and oddly stilted, with lugubrious dialogue spoken by French actors in bizarre not-quite-French accents, Feu Follet is, nevertheless, worth the effort (full disclosure: I maybe had to take five, or even 10, to get through the entire DVD) - if for nothing else, as a moody, b&w comparison period piece to Joachim Trier's recently-released, Oslo, August 31st, which is based on the same obscure source material.
Now for the good parts.
Like many of his generation, Leroy is trapped, intellectually and emotionally, by 1963; in particular, the violent end of the Algerian war and lingering colonial nostalgia, the intellectual necessity of incessantly smoking Sweet Afton cigarettes (Sartre's brand, of course, perhaps to counterbalance Sisyphus: I'm only half-joking), not to mention the introduction of the New Franc, representing the end of an era.
In fact, as if to underline this transition, there's a long, cinematically satisfying scene of him cashing Lydia's cheque at the bank, and a great show of the old cashier's fingers rapidly counting a wad of notes, new money that swept away the old system, while symbolically challenging, if you will, the assumptions of the time, a theme that, a few years later, culminated in Malle's May Fools (Milou En Mai).
The film's end-of-the-Fourth-Republic gestalt, perfectly captured, is in some respects a sort of mirror image of Agnes Varda's far sunnier Cleo From 5 to 7, filmed during roughly the same period, and which unfolds in the same place and time, but with a radically different take on the future.
When Leroy ends up in the Café de Flore, with a group of pieds noirs terrorists, his ex brothers in arms, now drinking cognacs, and plotting to overthrow the government, he starts to lose his grip.
"You're boy scouts," he yells, "nothing but pathetic boy scouts!"
And so they part ways, as tourists walk the sidewalk by the café, grotesque-looking, oblivious people, and a young woman watches Leroy, bemusedly, and an old man, with defeat and regret painted all over his face, swipes a handful of straws from the tabletop where he's sitting, and stuffs them in his coat pocket.
Finally, Leroy succumbs, too, as he must, to the unfinished cognac one of the pieds noirs left behind.
A leading man for almost a generation of French pictures, but now largely forgotten by many cinemaphiles, Ronet's performance here is muted, but a tour-de-force nevertheless.
The rest of Feu Follet's cast is also first rate, particularly the great Jeanne Moreau, in a cameo role, as an exhausted, yet reality-denying bohemian, and ex lover of Leroy's, who is prone to such pronouncements as "I never try to understand", New Wave fave Alexandra Stewart, as Solange, who exudes opportunistic sexuality, and Tony Taffin, in another bit part, as Brancion, a stuck-up arse who disapproves of Leroy's idler lifestyle: they meet during a dinner party hosted by Solange's new boyfriend, an old enabler of Leroy's.
But it is Ronet's interpretation of a possibly doomed alcoholic, eventually descending into that particular hell that is the ultimate fate of a true alcoholic on a bender, that makes the film worth watching, as indeterminate men lament how everyone loved Leroy when he was still handsome, and he nails that unnerving lucidity that can suddenly befall alcoholics, after all those years of confused self-delusion, when Leroy is ultimately able to articulate to his best friend Dubourg (played by the writer Bernard Noël) what he was trying for during all that time.
But is that self-knowledge, even if late in coming, Malle asks here, ever enough to keep the demons at bay?
It didn't seem to do F. Scott much good, for one.Reviewed on: 11 Aug 2012