Steve Williams explores Joachim Trier and Louis Malle’s adaptations of an existentialist tragedy.

In the 1930s Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, like many authors and artists of the time, searched for a new tragic vision to portray the rapidly shifting socio-political landscape. As a soldier he had witnessed the absurdity and tragic waste of World War One and emerged into a continent where the old world order was crumbling away. In Drieu’s eyes, Europe between the wars had become sterile, decadent and stultifying bourgeois. Eventually he turned to fascism to ‘walk in the excrement of partisan opinions’.

Drieu La Rochelle’s existentialist tragedy, Le Feu Follet (1931), is based on the last days of his friend, dada and surrealist poet, Jacques Rigaut. Rigaut, who wrote and talked about suicide, shot himself, using a ruler to make sure the bullet would pass accurately through his heart. In the novel, Alain – following successful treatment for his drug addictions – feels himself to be without passion and that life is moving too slowly in him. He resolves to kill himself after he visits Paris for one final effort to re-engage and find meaning in life.

Drieu’s story embodies the contradictory attitudes and existence of the author himself – his romantic belief in irrationality and passion with his brutally realistic view of the pain and suffering of life. He revolted against a delusory romanticism previously possessed by him – one of book readers and those caught up in their own heads. He believed that to throw oneself headlong into pain – into war, into hell – would unleash a spring of vitality within and redeem man from his decadent and sterile torpor.

Two filmmakers have adapted Drieu’s novel – both in times of cultural and moral decline. Louis Malle first adapted Le Feu Follet (1963) for 60’s post-war Paris, where life had once again become irredeemably bourgeois. The drug-addict protagonist of Drieu’s version becomes the alcoholic Alain – more fitting for the decadent French capital of the day. Collaboration guilt plus, as De Baecque argued, the comfortable life victory in the war afforded had detached French society from reality. And for our deteriorating and darkening times, Joachim Trier has revisited Le Feu Follet, bringing its themes to present day Norway in Oslo, 31st August (2011) to follow Anders, a heroin addict, after his release from a clinic.

The timing of these adaptations is important. Drieu was obsessed with the idea of history as tragic destiny which was to be confronted. This inevitability of time and fate is bound up with both movies, as well as Trier’s previous film Reprise (2006).

Erik Satie’s amaranthine piano compositions echo through Malle’s film, propelling its temporality and lending it a melancholic nostalgia. Trier’s Oslo, 31st August achieves a similar effect through its setting – the light quality at the end of a Scandinavian summer, together with a neutral colour palette in the cinematography – which gives his film the unmistakable sense of something in the process of passing by and disappearing. The ephemeral nature of lives and events is emphasised at the beginning of the film by voices recounting memories of events set to old film footage of locations in Oslo. Trier wanted to evoke this mood and the fact that ‘things are in passing and withering and it’s an essential emotion to the human condition.’

Malle’s film is different – he was, up until the point of making this, considered by some harsher critics to be no more than a proficient technician of the Nouvelle Vague. With Le Feu Follet, Malle finally found an aesthetic form that he was pleased with and felt that its sparse, economic approach fitted the subject matter well.

The film also has a personal element. Malle’s protagonist is a recovering alcoholic, played by Maurice Renot. The pair had worked together previously and had also fallen victim to alcoholic excess and a decadent lifestyle. Malle, also experiencing doubts about his own future at the time, felt close to both Ronet, the actor, and Alain, the character. Director and lead also looked remarkably similar and Malle clothed Ronet in his own wardrobe as well as surrounding the actor with some of his own personal effects in the setting of his hospital room. The early scene in the room as Alain toys with these belongings almost depicts the metamorphosis of Ronet into Malle’s intended embodiment of the character, for whom the filmmaker had a fondness and tenderness. Malle elicited a remarkable and controlled performance from Ronet, by utilising the actor’s tarnished good looks and forcing him to lose 40 pounds for the role, making him appear malnourished and drawn.

Joachim Trier has a fascination for the inconsistencies in people and relationships, and this makes Drieu’s novel perfect source material. There is complexity and ambiguity in human relationships and in the way we communicate with each other. Both Malle’s and Trier’s versions examine these inconsistencies by focussing on what is communicated through words – the said – and what is communicated through facial expressions – the unsaid. Through the close-ups on people’s faces and cut-aways to the non-verbal cues and behaviours, both directors reveal true intentions and the untouchable elements of the human personality.

Both films also contain outstanding scenes – both set in a cafe – of existential crisis through increasing dissociation, evoking a cloying angst in the viewer’s throat. Malle uses the setting of a Parisian boulevard cafe to achieve this effect – juxtaposing the disconnected Alain with the street life literally passing him by. Trier’s film inventively uses sound to create a dissonance between Anders’ inner-state and the banality of the conversation he hears in the cafe around him and feels unable to participate in.

It is unsure if Alain, like Drieu himself, is a member of the decadent class – guilty of the mediocrity he so despises. Mediocrity is a central theme of Trier’s Reprise, in which two writers and their group of friends prowl around the fringes of society bemoaning the sterility and lack of force that relationships and a comfortable life bring – once Erik gets his book published he feels obliged to break up with his girlfriend to avoid this. The inconsistency, as with Drieu, lies in that they choose to engage and forge their heroism through intellectual pursuits.

Drieu also felt that an urban existence was dehumanising and that man had to free himself from such a condition. In Malle’s film, Alain is institutionalised in Versailles and is thus located on the outskirts of Paris lifestyle. In the early scenes of Oslo, 31st August, Anders, upon his release, crosses the metaphorical barrier of the motorway to enter nature and tries to reconnect with life by committing suicide.

It is no contradiction that, in the search to engage with life, suicide is an option. Drieu believed that the truth had to be tested to be known. According to historian Robert Soucy, his ‘epistemological pragmatism’ was a kind of fascist existentialism. However, death itself was the most radical experience one could ever encounter, albeit paradoxically one that brings life to an end. To approach death was to feel more connected with life, by conquering the final fear of the human condition – the fear of death.

For Alain and Anders, two things obviate the need for total self-obliteration and offer a form of death and temporary reconnection with life – women and intoxication. One could argue that herein lies a ‘petit mort’, through either a flirtation with death through risk and excess, or achieving an oblivion of the self by merging with another human being. Both inflame and excite the passions temporarily and allow a life connection. This, however, betrays the true nature of the protagonists – Le Feu Follet translates as Willow-the-wisp – and there, evident in the two, is the lightness of being that Milan Kundera wrote of. An ephemeral being that longs to be tied down by something, be it through an addiction to substances or under the weight of another human being. Are they afraid of their freedom? Albert Camus thought suicide to be the rejection of freedom.

A further aim of death through suicide is to achieve immortality. The protagonists not only seek death, they wish to cheat it. They want to leave their imprint behind, their permanent connection with the world, in an anti-heroic act. In Malle’s Le Feu Follet, Alain’s suicide seems wilful – as if he wanted to impose his will on the friends and the life he left behind through violent death at his own hand. In Reprise, Erik and Phillip’s shot at immortality comes in the form of literary greatness. For Anders in Oslo, 31st August, however, it is unsure what death will bring. Will he achieve immortality by escaping the eternal return of time and life? Or will he simply be carried by the cycle of history and absorbed by the emptiness of the city and the people that he left behind?