Befitting its extraordinary subject, Anne-Kathrin Peitz and Youlian Tabakov’s brilliant film about the French composer and hardline agent provocateur Erik Satie aims at more than a standard life-and-works biography. Satie, the film reminds us, preferred to walk in the rain, but would go to extreme lengths to avoid his precious umbrella getting wet. Peitz and Tabakov’s film similarly slants at logic by consciously breaking the fourth wall.
One leitmotif – sorry Erik, that’s too Wagner; let’s settle for ‘idée fixe’ instead – underpinning the film is a silhouette of Satie’s own magnificent facial hair that detaches itself from a cartoon image of his body, and, in animated moves that Terry Gilliam would be proud to call his own, transforms into note-heads which swim along staves like fish. Satie liked to fill his time by drawing faux adverts that ‘sold’ everything from ships to spacecraft. And Satiesfictions is liberally littered with comparable whimsy. A man in hospital is brought a medicine tray. The lid is lifted to reveal a revolving LP of Satie’s music, which miraculously cures the patient.
But underlying these verbal, musical and visual puns is a sincere attempt to crack the enigma of Satie. From the archives comes footage of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Virgil Thomson, Georges Auric and other primary sources who all testify to Satie’s oddly inverse charisma; here was someone whose personality could fill a room – but only once he’d left it. The deeper you got to know Satie, the further his distance became. The film portrays the acute pain of actually being Erik Satie – that single catastrophic love affair, the loneliness, the boredom, the desperation of what to do when he wasn’t composing.
Today, Satie would probably have been diagnosed as being on some spectrum or other. But Peitz and Tabakov are interested in how his inner life knocked back on the music. Satie authority Jean-Pierre Armengaud compares the composer’s structures to tweets – contained bursts of compacted reality released into a virtual reality. Henri Sauguet describes how Satie was gloriously unafraid of banal gestures – better a legitimately banal gesture than a grand gesture gone wrong. When, at the age of 55, Satie finally got the commission for Parade and was lifted out of poverty, he spent all the cash on taking his friends for dinner – squandering money that might have made his everyday life more tolerable on friends in whose presence he often felt uncomfortable. In loneliness and hardship, Satie found comfort.