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BIRTH – Alexandre Desplat

October 29, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

birthOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

French composer Alexandre Desplat saw his stock rise considerably in 2003 following the international acclaim and multiple award nominations he received for Girl with a Pearl Earring. On the back of that success, Desplat was signed to score three fairly major movies in 2004: Hostage, The Upside of Anger, and Birth.  A controversial and challenging drama, Birth is director Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Sexy Beast, and stars Nicole Kidman as Anna, a young woman whose husband Sean dies unexpectedly while out jogging in Central Park. Ten years later, having finally come to terms with her loss and become engaged to the kind and successful Joseph (Danny Huston), Anna’s life is thrown into turmoil once more when a 10-year old boy (Cameron Bright) appears, claiming to be the reincarnation of her dead husband.

As one of the films in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, Birth courted controversy in the media for a scene in which Kidman and Bright share a naked bath together. A scandal-hungry media made a big issue out of what was, in retrospect, an innocuous scene, but which caused director Glazer and many of the film’s co-stars (Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, Peter Stormare) to speak out in the film’s favor. Thankfully, none of this “bad press” affected the work of acclaim for Desplat’s classically rich score, which could well see him rise to even greater heights in the film music world in future.

Desplat’s score is a fully-orchestral, strong themed, but occasionally quite subdued work which, from time to time, veers into the minimalist territory of John Adams or Philip Glass. Intentionally, there is very little conventional warmth to Birth; it’s almost as though Desplat is trying to convey the coldness of the New York setting, the grief Anna feels for the death of her husband, and her confusion following the appearance of “young Sean”. Having said that, Birth is still an attractive score, with several pleasant themes (one of which, oddly, reminds me of Elliot Goldenthal’s Sphere) and a melodic core that never disintegrates.

The main theme, introduced in “The Engagement” on solo piano, is an elegant, refined waltz motif, which by the time it is heard for the third or fourth time in “The Kiss” has developed into a slightly unsettling variation; unsettling because, somehow, the score seems a little skewed, as though the prettiness of the music and the lushness of the orchestrations do not quite match up with the emotions and sentiments it is intended to convey. When it receives its fullest rendition, in the conclusive “Birth Waltz”, the theme seems to have resolved itself, resulting in a delightful performance which brings to mind Elmer Bernstein’s work on The Age of Innocence.

The interesting “Prologue” is a wonderful exercise in rhythm, with sprightly woodwinds playing one-upmanship games with other sections of the orchestra, as tempos are pitted against each other – it should collide and sound chaotic but, amazingly, it works. Other cues, notably “Under a Spell” and parts of the “Elegy” are comprised mainly of shifting orchestral tones which hypnotize rather than stimulate the listener. To Desplat’s credit, these elongated drones never become monotonous in any way: he changes the color, changes the timbre, and changes key regularly, keeping things moving, and keeping things interesting. One cue which stands at odds with the rest of the score, “Timpani” does exactly what it says on the tin by highlighting the percussive expertise of the London Symphony Orchestra in a series of rare, but welcome solos, augmented by a soft orchestral wash.

Throughout the score, a subliminal heartbeat motif can be heard in the lower reaches of the orchestra, possibly to indicate the enduring love Anna had for her husband. During the album’s middle three or four cues (“Letter” through “Mr. Reincarnation”), this heartbeat sometimes changes into a peculiar mechanical drone, hidden away under the music, never really *there*, but which still somehow seeps through and makes the listener just a little uneasy. By “Day Out”, it is a heartbeat again, but you are left in no uncertain terms that everything is not quite as it seems.

One thing most gratifying about the career development of Alexandre Desplat is that, unlike many modern composers, he has a distinct style, which has stayed with him through his most prominent international films such as The Luzhin Defence and Girl With a Pearl Earring. Whether it has something to do with the fact that comes from the “old school” of having the ability to conduct and fully orchestrate all his own work, or whether it is to do with the fact that most of his career has been spent in Europe, where composers tend to have more control over their own music than in Hollywood, is unclear. What is clear is that Desplat is a unique, intelligent voice in modern film music, and one can only hope that he continues to receive the assignments – and plaudits – his talent deserves.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (4:00)
  • The Engagement (2:52)
  • The Rendez-vous (3:10)
  • Under A Spell (2:37)
  • The Wedding (5:09)
  • Letter (1:43)
  • The Kiss (4:29)
  • Mr. Reincarnation (1:07)
  • Day Out (3:38)
  • Knight At Night (1:15)
  • Timpani (1:29)
  • Another Lifetime (1:09)
  • My Dead Husband (1:32)
  • Elegy (6:12)
  • Birth Waltz (2:36)

Running Time: 43 minutes 07 seconds

Silva Screen SILCD-1171 (2004)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Gerard McCann. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat, Peter Raeburn and Peter Cobbin.

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