Things have been quiet here at Primal Scenes these past several weeks, mainly due to my being preoccupied with other personal and professional stuff, coupled with the post-awards-season fatigue that usually settles in at this time of the year. I’ve been doing a fair amount of home viewing lately, but it’s been mostly odds and ends, and the films have been mostly forgettable. Meanwhile, as many of you likely know, February and March mean slim pickins at the movie theater. (I do, however, eagerly anticipate the release of Volumes I and II of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.)
That means that my posts these next several months will likely be sporadic and free-wheeling. I’ll be watching and reporting on a variety of things, mostly older films that I’ve been meaning to catch up with for some time. This week, for instance, I found myself revisiting Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963). For whatever reason, and in spite of having been struck by a chilling, spare montage sequence about twenty minutes into the film, set to Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 3,” I walked away from it some time back in 2007 or 2008 and never finished it. Because I don’t like leaving things unfinished, I finally decided to give it another go. It’s a beautiful and tough film, the story of an impending suicide told with remarkable serenity and grace, but devoid of reassurance or cheap sentiment. Its haunting tone is augmented by Malle’s use of Satie during key moments—what Virginia Woolf might have identified as “moments of being”—at which the main character’s experience appears, fleetingly, to heighten, whether at the unexpected sight of an old acquaintance, while watching passersby from his seat at a café table, or while passing time idly in his bedroom. It’s during these sequences that Satie’s music seems to bring the mood of the film into focus. One could accuse Malle of using Satie as an emotional shortcut: the music makes us feel something that Malle can’t evoke on his own. But the use of music in cinema to evoke certain feelings need not always be a sign of the director’s weakness (even if it’s often used lazily). It also helps that Satie’s music is subtle enough that, although it contributes greatly to the affective force of the film, it doesn’t reduce it or flatten it out. Its contemplative stillness, brushed with a certain quiet pain, reflects the ontological condition of a character who remains otherwise unknowable.