The Lovers & The Fire Within
Louis Malle, lobbing smart bombs
Reviewed by John Davidson, Fri., June 13, 2008
The Fire Within
Criterion Collection, $29.95 (each)
The early years of Louis Malle's film career may have coincided with the emergence of Godard and Truffaut, with the revolution of French New Wave cinema, but Malle was never truly a part of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, nor of the New Wave. His work was not borne of auteur theory; his stylings were less flamboyantly avant-garde, and as a result, his work and reputation have at times been unfairly marginalized. Yet one typical feature of revolutions is that they tend to result in empty bombs being tossed scattershot, and certainly the New Wave revolution was no exception in this regard. These two releases from Criterion, however, suggest that the explosions Malle conceived of were delicately constructed and precisely aimed, and at many of the selfsame conservative targets. By comparison, we might be tempted to call them smart bombs.
The Lovers (1958) stars Jeanne Moreau in a story adapted from an 18th century novel. Moreau was best known as a star of the theatre stage until Malle cast her as the lead in his debut feature, Elevator to the Gallows (made a year earlier, when Malle was just 24 years old). In The Lovers, Moreau plays a character Flaubert would have recognized – a frustrated bourgeois wife who, by means of an unlikely affair, finds passion and forced sacrifice in equal measure. The film's frank sexuality caused a considerable stir at the time, and it embarked Moreau on a journey in which she was long viewed as "the thinking man's sex object" – an offhand way of describing her somewhat unconventional beauty.
Moreau also appears – in an unglamorous cameo – in one of Malle's most personal films, The Fire Within (1963). That film describes a failed writer's final day on the streets of Paris, visiting friends before taking his own life. Again, it was adapted from a novel (early 20th century this time), and the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald is also invoked in a bar scene that tips its hat to Fitzgerald's story "Babylon Revisited," a copy of which is seen at one point resting on the protagonist's bookshelf.
What The Lovers and The Fire Within both share is a decidedly literary sensibility. Each possesses the kind of density you're more likely to find in a novel, and each places demands upon the viewer. Alluding to the bleak subject matter of The Fire Within, Malle remarked, "It's not entertainment." Ah, but it is, though – "thinking man's entertainment," maybe?
Also Out Now
The Thief of Bagdad (Criterion Collection, $31.96): In 1942, Alexander Korda, dean of the British film industry, became the first film director to be knighted – an odd kind of destiny for a man born in Hungary. The Thief is a luxurious Technicolor fantasy, and it features the wondrous charm of Sabu in the role of the sprightly thief Abu.
The Three Stooges Collection 1937-39 (Sony Pictures, $24.96): Curly, Larry, and Moe at the height of their game – 415 minutes of barely contained madness, spread over two discs. Watch it in one sitting ... and then call a doctor.