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ARSÈNE LUPIN – Debbie Wiseman

October 13, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

arsenelupinOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Regular readers of Movie Music UK will know that I am a big fan of the British composer Debbie Wiseman. Not only is she blazing a trail for female composers in film music at a time when they are still vastly outnumbered in the battle of the sexes, but she has written a number of staggeringly good scores since she burst on the international scene in the mid-1990s: Tom & Viv, Haunted and especially her 1997 masterpiece Wilde are amongst my personal favorite scores. Taking that into account, you will understand what massive praise I am bestowing when I say that, unequivocally, Arsène Lupin is her finest score to date.

Based on the famous series of novels by Maurice Leblanc, and directed by Jean-Paul Salomé, Arsène Lupin tells the story of the eponymous hero, a self-styled “gentleman jewel thief” moving in the aristocratic circles of late 19th century Paris. A cross between Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Indiana Jones and James Bond, Lupin (Romain Duris) was taught the art of “honorable theft” by his father, and vowed to continue his father’s work after he is murdered. Fifteen years later, Arsène is living the life of a gentleman, carrying out non-violent crimes for the good of the people, while wooing two women:  childhood sweetheart Clarisse (Eva Green), and the mysterious and seductive Countess Josephine de Cagliostro (Kristin Scott Thomas). Everything changes when Arsène finds himself caught up in a labyrinthine plot of love, politics and intrigue following his discovery of a conspiracy by royalists to overthrow the Republic. In order to thwart the uprising, Arsène finds himself in a race to steal three crucifixes which supposedly hold the key to the crown – but finds himself in competition with the wily Beaumagnon (Pascal Greggory), a rival thief who claims to have been Josephine’s former lover.

Making excellent use of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and with special emphasis on an enlarged brass section, large-scale percussion, and solo performances of both a cimbalom and a glass harmonica, the most impressive aspect of Arsène Lupin is its size and range: this is a massive score in every respect. The delicious mix of action, romance, period drama and light comedy – all within a French setting – allowed Wiseman to really stretch her compositional muscles to the extreme. The end result is nothing short of magnificent.

I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way, because I don’t mean it in a derogatory or sexist way at all, but Arsène Lupin doesn’t sound like it was written by a woman. By that I mean, in film music, scores written by women tend to induce certain preconceptions of what they will sound like – the sensitive piano scores of Rachel Portman being one example. Unless you’re Shirley Walker, earth-shattering action doesn’t usually enter the equation, but Arsène Lupin could have been written by a Hollywood action type such as Danny Elfman or Alan Silvestri. I most definitely mean that as a compliment – there is an air of Batman and Van Helsing about Wiseman’s work here. Never before has she written music on this scale, with themes this bold, brasses this powerful, or percussion this prominent.

Wiseman’s main theme is a jaunty, yet sly melody for sweeping strings, undulating brasses and a tinkling cimbalom, which underlines Lupin’s wily ways with broad orchestral strokes, mixing the flavors of intrigue and heroism into a delicious cocktail. Appearing first in the opening cue, “Arsène Lupin”, it is reworked into an enormous action set-piece in “The Needle of Etretat”, and appears in several cues thereafter. She continues to illustrate Lupin’s aristocratic character through a number of set pieces which depict both the setting and the time period. “Casino” has an air of fancy – a shimmering dance for a more refined age. Straussian waltzes give “The Ballroom” an air of Viennese opulence, while some of the quieter moments of reflection and romance (“Clarisse and Arsène”, “Goodbye Mother”, “Clarisse Awakes”) are fuelled by Wilde-like tender pianos and warm strings, with the added bonus of an occasional solo trumpet á la Nino Rota.

The cimbalom features prominently throughout the score, and is used both as an indicator of the European setting, and to add a touch of light-heartedness to what is otherwise a dramatic and powerful score. The instrument, in film music circles at least, is synonymous with the work of John Barry in the 1960s, especially scores such as The Ipcress File. In a roundabout way, Wiseman’s use of the instrument makes Lupin a distant cousin of Harry Palmer: tough, determined, but with a twinkle in his eye. Alasdair Molloy‘s glass harmonica adds a sense of mystery to cues such as “Countess Cagliostro” and “Underwater”, a pipe organ adds a touch of the neo-Gothic to the “The Mask of Prince Sernine”, and moments of playful comedy give a lightness to “Fooled by a Newcomer”. However, in a score full of highlights, the moments which stand out the most involve action.

Several cues, notably “Le Grand Cafè”, the Frankenstein-like “Arsène et Beaumagnan”, the energetic “Theft of the Crucifix”, the propulsive “Fields of Lupin”, the sweeping “The Eighth Star Will Be Divine”, and the percussion-heavy “The Blue Lupin” throb to massive orchestral forces. Each of these are underpinned by a number of fascinating brass-led rhythms, and driven by recapitulations of one or more of the main themes by the strong string section. These cues are simply spellbinding, relentlessly moving forward with power, energy and creativity. When Wiseman adds a choir, as she often does, the music takes on an epic grandeur that has not been heard to this extent from her before.

The song, “Qui Es-Tu?”, is a delightful French melody adapted from Wiseman’s theme, which is performed with sultry gusto by vocalist Mathieu Chedid (credited as “M”), who added a similar sense of romance and whimsy to the Oscar nominated song from the 2003 French animated film Belleville Rendez-Vous.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Arsène Lupin is by far the most impressive score of Debbie Wiseman’s career to date. Interestingly, it could also prove to be the most important: there are seventeen Arsène Lupin novels in print, and it could be that if this film is an international success, a franchise of sequels may develop. Assuming her creative partnership with director Salomé continues, I would certainly relish an opportunity for Wiseman to take this material and develop it further on additional films. As it stands, Arsène Lupin has a size, depth, creativity and excitement equal to – if not greater than – the best that Hollywood has to offer, and is easily one of the best scores of 2004.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Qui Es-Tu? (written by Debbie Wiseman, Sébastien Martel, Piers Faccini and Marcel Kanche, performed by ‘M’) (3:06)
  • Arsène Lupin (2:14)
  • Le Grand Café (6:27)
  • Arsène Deserted (3:14)
  • Casino (1:36)
  • The Needle of Etretat (2:50)
  • Clarisse et Arsène (1:43)
  • Arsène Escapes (2:09)
  • Goodbye Mother (3:07)
  • Countess Cagliostro (3:29)
  • Underwater (3:27)
  • Arsène et Beaumagnan (2:04)
  • The Ballroom (2:08)
  • Theft of the Crucifix (4:13)
  • Under the Spell (4:18)
  • The Mask of Prince Sernine (2:34)
  • Fields of Lupin (4:14)
  • The Eighth Star Will Be Divine (4:53)
  • The Hollow Needle (1:48)
  • Fooled by a Newcomer (3:08)
  • Clarisse Wakes (3:34)
  • The Blue Lupin (2:38)
  • Secret Passage (4:51)

Running Time: 73 minutes 53 seconds

EMI France 7243-8636282-7 (2004)

Music composed and conducted by Debbie Wiseman. Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Crouch End Festival Chorus. Orchestrations by Debbie Wiseman. Featured musical soloists Michael Whight, Ian Jones, Greg Knowles and Alasdair Molloy. Recorded and mixed by Steve Price. Album produced by Debbie Wiseman and James Fitzpatrick.

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