Le feu follet (The Fire Within) (1963)

Director: Louis Malle
Composer: Eric Satie

Perhaps one of the bleakest works in cinematic history, Le feu follet (The Fire Within) takes its story from the book of the same name by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, inspired by the real-life Surrealist personality, Jacques Rigaut. Maurice Ronet plays Alain Leroy, a convalescing alcoholic who has decided that he no longer wishes to live. We follow Leroy’s final 24 hours, his narration allowing us into his world (both inner and outer) and his utter resignation of life palpable as he sits in his room at a rehabilitation clinic toying with the gun that will bring about his end. This room, with its photographs and news clippings, is a shrine to his past and to death itself. It is a mausoleum for a man who though living in the corporeal sense, died long ago.


In these solitary moments and as he wanders through Paris alone and with the totems of his past, the film is soundtracked with solo piano compositions by Eric Satie. A French composer who rose to prominence in the late 19th century, Satie’s music is (particularly for the time it was written in) ambiguous in its employment of musical modes and space, and overall conveys a sense of longing. In fact, the performance instructions written into the compositions are vividly descriptive in order to garner this feeling.

The pieces utilized on Le feu follet’s soundtrack are taken from his works, Gymnopédies (1888) and Gnossiennes (c.1890s). The starkly beautiful pieces that make up the Gnossiennes series in particular are marked with humorously specific notes:

Gnossienne No.1: Lent
“Du bout de la pensée”: deep in thought
“Sur la langue”: on the tip of the tongue

Gnossienne No.3: Lent
“”Munissez-vous de clairvoyance”: provide yourself with clear sightedness
“Très perdu”: quite lost

Though it was Satie’s intention to use the performance instruction in an ironic sense (a little dig at the overly-romantic performance notes added to compositions of the time) the pieces do sound melancholic and self-reflective. In fact, they function as the perfect soundtrack to the flâneur of late-19th century Paris: a passionate stroller who enjoyed aimless exploration of his urban environment. Satie himself enjoyed long walks to pass the time, and in Le feu follet we often see Leroy walking alone in a contemplative state.

In one scene soundtracked by Gnossienne No.1, Leroy stops in at a café and watches sadly as people socialise and, as he struggles to not take a drink, we get a sense of his outsiderdom.

The ambiguous nature of the works, in that their melodies seem to skirt around predictable and traditional harmonic choices, also compliment the restless ennui of Leroy as he waits around for the 23rd of July, the date he has designated he will die. He watches as the world goes by, alone with his apathy and memories of a past in which he “wanted so much to be loved”.

Like any good director, Malle also knew the power of silence. In the first scene in which we see Leroy’s gun, there is nothing on the soundtrack but the sound of Leroy toying with it. It is deafeningly quiet and uncomfortable to watch. In an old Hollywood film such a ‘reveal’ would often garner a musical “stinger”, a sudden exclamation in the soundtrack that would mirror the surprise of the viewer. But here the silence only gives way to the habitual noise of the outside world, as cars honk outside Leroy’s window and the world of the living goes on unaware of this man’s suicidal preoccupations.

The combination of Satie’s solitary piano melancholy and silence forms the crux of Le feu follet’s soundtrack, underscoring perfectly the existential pain of a man with no desire but to die and leave “an indelible stain.”

Picture Credits:
With clippings: film-grab.com
With gun: madmuseum.com


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