Two Sides of the Same Coin

Le Feu Follet (Louis Malle, France, 1963), and Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, Norway, 2011)

Reviewed by Dr Nadeem Akhtar, Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, McMaster University

Resilience has become an increasingly prevalent term in the world of psychiatry to understand what keeps people well. The developmental psychologist, Emmy Werner, first used the term in the 1980s in describing some children in a Hawaiian cohort study who attained strong psychological health.[1] In recent years, there has been an ever-expanding drive to delineate the core components of resilience. There appears to be a general consensus that resilient individuals have more stable mental health and are able to adapt to emotional as well as environmental challenges, by virtue of having dynamic coping skills.[2]

The question of what allows us to cope can in some sense be reduced to having an optimistic framework to look past challenge, the support of others in doing so and a sense of a wider purpose.

It was a very concrete, apathetic stance on existence, which plagued the French surrealist poet, Jacques Rigaut (1898-1929) and arguably eroded his resilience. An eccentric, academically-gifted youth, Rigaut served in the First World War, which left him with lasting traumatic memories of conflict and loss of his peers. Upon returning home to Paris, he became involved in the underground arts scene, befriending the author Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. He went on to become part of the Dada movement, a collective of Avant-guard writers and artists emerging from Zurich and Switzerland upholding values denouncing nationalism and materialism. Emotionally lost, penniless and disillusioned, Rigaut was a heavy user of opium, cocaine and heroin by the age of 22.

In his mid-twenties he tried to maintain the identity of a responsible husband and partner, moving to New York with his wealthy, socialite wife, Gladys Barber. The marriage failed due to his ongoing substance use, with Rigaut eventually returning to Paris at the age of 29. He then went through a series of detoxification treatments before finally taking his own life at the age of 30. Throughout his literary pieces, Rigaut toyed with ideas of suicide and purposelessness. He lacked the inner facets of wellbeing that would align with resilience. His final act of suicide represented the end point of an ever isolating journey filled with numerous acquaintances but lacking a true feeling of connection to the world around him.

In 1931, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle wrote the novel, Le Feu Follet (‘The Fire Within’, or ‘Will O’ the Wisp’)[3] inspired by the life and death of his former contemporary, Rigaut.

Thirty years later, the French director Louis Malle brought Drieu La Rochelle’s story to the screen. Malle had already established himself as a pioneer in the ‘Nouvelle Vague’ (New Wave) cinematic movement. This represented an era in French film-making in which directors broke away from the confines of formulaic cliché by presenting a realist view of society, politics and emotion and creating a body of introspective work that distinctly creates a resonant emotive experience in the audience.


Le Feu Follet; Protagonist Alain Leroy contemplates a fading purpose in life surrounded by souvenirs of the life of alcohol dependency he is leaving behind.


In Malle’s Le Feu Follet a previously alcohol dependent, depressed protagonist visits his friends and past haunts searching for a compelling reason to live.  In sharing his journey, we feel how mundane, slow and empty his life has become. As the sober version of his former self, he lacks social and emotional connections. Whilst others have settled into more typical, psychologically fulfilling roles (having families, spiritual beliefs, professions and autonomy) he has not.  It is clear that his addiction afforded him a form of resilience (albeit pathological), in the shape of acquaintances, a sense of belonging, purpose, identity and immediate anxiolysis. The film is incredibly effective in conveying the repetitive, futile and isolating nature of the protagonist’s predicament. We are presented with the image of a man who wanders the greying archives of his life as if he has already passed away. The isolating atmosphere is beautifully shot in black and white scenes accompanied by haunting melodies of the French avant guarde pianist, Eric Satie.

Eight decades following the publication of Le Feu Follet, the Norwegian director Joachim Trier revisits the book in his film Oslo, August 31st. Trier had already demonstrated his ability to present time-honoured themes of love, identity, purpose and memory in his first film, Reprise, which focused on the struggles of two aspiring authors. Oslo, August 31st appears to be an extension of similar themes, updated to modern day and set in the sub-culture of an oft marginalised protagonist. It follows the final 24 hours in the life of Anders, a thirty-something recovering heroin addict who is searching for a deeper sense of purpose and a reason to live.

The film opens with Ander’s unsuccessful attempt at taking his life, before he leaves a rehabilitation centre on a day pass to attend a job interview. It isn’t long before we understand that even an editorial job opportunity that he would have longed for in his previous years cannot compensate for the apathy engulfing him. Like we saw in Malle’s ‘Le Feu Follet’, our protagonist visits old haunts and friends desperate for a sense of purpose, but to no avail. In the midst of energetic, lively surroundings, Anders is always an outsider; flitting between a partially active participant and a detached wanderer. The pace of Trier’s production is faster, more contemporary, and relatable than Malle’s Le Feu Follet. Oslo August 31st, although cinematically more engaging (borrowing stylistically from Italian Neorealism as well as the unassuming aesthetic of the Nouvelle Vague), fails to create the same emotional intensity in the viewer, as we simply do not feel the fatigue or alienation of the protagonist enough.

Although on the surface both films appear to convey a bleak narrative, they can be interpreted as cautionary tales demonstrating the intrinsic role of society as well as healthcare in empowering those recovering from substance abuse.  In neither production do we witness the protagonist having any meaningful social connections, or receiving professional mental health support.  Whilst each depiction represents the end-point of isolating despair, the aim is in no doubt to warn off walking down the path of ‘self-destruction’.

Whether Trier’s more accessible style or Malle’s more emotive approach is preferred, both films raise important questions about our clinical work as psychiatrists with those who suffer from addiction. In coaching our patients to develop new sources of resilience, we must remember that they are embarking on a journey where they are letting go of habituated, perceived stabilisers in pursuit of relationships, purpose and an identity which are not yet a tangible reality. To aid this transformative process, we must recognise the dichotomy between reality and imagination, and understand how difficult it is for individuals to end their relationship with substance. As healthcare systems we must offer psycho-social methods for building resilience which are timely, accessible and easily envisioned. Multi-faceted therapeutic initiatives geared towards developing ‘personalised’ coping skills, vocational/educational identity, new peer connections and a sense of wider inclusion through strong links with community resources. With diminishing public healthcare budgets and a shift away from pro-active to reactive practice, realizing such interventions is easier said than done.

For further insights on the topic of resilience, readers might also be interested in Khalid Ali’s review of the film Resilience, and his discussion with the film’s director, James Redford.




[1] Werner, E. E., & Smith, R.S. (1982). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York: McGraw Hill.

[2] Barankin, T & Khanlou, N (2007). ‘Growing Up Resilient: Ways to Build Resilience in Children and Youth’. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Canada.

[3] Drieu La Rochelle, P (1931). Le Feu Follet. Editions Gallimard, Paris, France.

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