Home > Reviews > CHÉRI – Alexandre Desplat

CHÉRI – Alexandre Desplat

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A romantic period comedy-drama based on a novel by the popular French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and directed by Stephen Frears, Chéri is the story of an unusual romance between Léa de Lonval, an ageing courtesan in 1900s Paris, and Frederic Peloux – nicknamed ‘Chéri’ – the 19 year old son of Léa’s friend Charlotte Peloux. Despite the differences between them in age and class status, Léa teaches the eager Chéri about life, love, and sex, shattering stereotypes and upsetting the inflexible social order of the period. The film stars the luminous Michelle Pfeiffer as Léa – still as gorgeous as ever at the age of 51 – Rupert Friend as Chéri, and Kathy Bates, Felicity Jones and Frances Tomelty in supporting roles. The film also has an original score by Alexandre Desplat, whose work and stylistics would seem to fit this genre above any other.

If any composer is suited to scoring a French period romance, Alexandre Desplat is. Making use of a the London Symphony Orchestra with special emphasis on Carmine Lauri’s violin, James Boyd’s viola and Caroline Dale’s cello, Desplat’s score sparkles and shimmers with the same wit and energy that Pfeiffer brings to her performance in her role. The main theme, “Chéri”, is a mischievous dance which flits around the lighter parts of orchestra, pitting a set of lightly prancing ultra-high strings against playfully delicate interludes for chimes and bells, clarinets, harps, a harpsichord, and other crystalline orchestrations, that set a mood of good-natured whimsy.

A lush theme in waltz-time, underpinned by an increasingly familiar electronic pulse, characterizes the lovely “The Rose Acacia”, which features especially tender and longing solo performances of the three solo string instruments; the oddly engrossing duet between the cello and a twinkling glockenspiel is a highlight of the cue’s second half.

Much of the rest of the score unfolds from the main themes in the “Chéri” suite, both in terms of tone and in instrumental content; high strings, impeccably precise rhythms, and other instruments performing at the higher end of the register – pianos, chimes, bells, metallic percussion, fluttery woodwinds – dominate the score. Once or twice, an unusual circus-like motif, underpinned by oompah brasses, does make an appearance, as in the “The Wedding” and later in “Pleasure and Happiness”, giving the score a little boost of unexpected comedy, as if underscoring the pompousness and over-formality of Parisienne society, and the ‘circus’ of public social niceties masking the rampant sexuality behind closed doors.

The twinkly-eyed playfulness reappears in “First Kiss”, clearly the come-hither seduction of an older woman leading on her teenaged quarry; “Flower Tunnel” features a piano solo of wonderful dexterity and clarity that gradually gives way to a gorgeous, romantic viola theme, again in waltz-time. “To Biarritz” is a more gregarious piece underpinned by a strident string figure that conveys a sense of movement and purpose, and eventually develops into a prominent trumpet statement, clear and powerful.

“Return Home” swells into a lovely, lush duet for soothing strings and those wonderfully elegant dancing flutes he often employs; at the other end of the scale, “Léa’s Solitude” features moody, introspective violin solos, a poignant piano melody, and bittersweet harp waves, clearly alluding the loss and loneliness felt by Pfeiffer’s character at the low point in her life. A slightly forlorn variation on the main waltz theme appears in the lovely penultimate cue, “Beautiful Handles”, while the conclusive “An Old Woman” has a palpable sense of wistful resignation lightened by a twinge of tenderness, and restates the lovely waltz theme for Léa, before gradually fading to nothingness via an extended string sustain.

One thing that I am beginning to notice, the more and more I listen to Desplat’s music, is how much of a unique and original voice he has. Unlike other composers, who are consummate musical chameleons, Desplat’s music always sounds like Desplat’s music. There’s no mistaking his style. He has a number of personal markers which crop up in many of his scores, and which clearly show them to be a “Desplat score”. His continual use of waltz time, for example, is clearly a dead giveaway, but there is also a great deal of individuality and personality in the way he writes for woodwinds, the way he favors certain twinkling percussion instruments over others, the way he uses certain instruments in combination with others, the way he often uses electronic pulses under his orchestra to boost the bass. Chéri has much in common with scores like Birth, The Luzhin Defence, and some of his earlier French-language features, and as such will clearly appeal greatly to admirers of those works.

As I have said before on other reviews of Desplat’s works, this score is clearly not for everyone. His precise, almost metronomic pacing obviously puts some people to sleep, while the clarity of the orchestrations and attention to detail in the instrumental combinations evidently frustrates those who prefer a larger palette and a more powerful orchestral sound. I understand that; I really do. Personally, however, I find myself falling in love with the Frenchman’s music more and more with each passing score, and Chéri is yet another example of why I consider Alexandre Desplat to be arguably the most exciting voice to emerge into the film music mainstream in many years.

Rating: ****

Buy the Chéri soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Chéri (4:16)
  • The Rose Acacia (2:53)
  • The Wedding (6:52)
  • First Kiss (2:22)
  • Flower Tunnel (2:03)
  • To Biarritz (4:07)
  • 6 Years Later (2:36)
  • Return Home (4:04)
  • Léa’s Solitude (1:14)
  • All Goes Well With The World (2:50)
  • Orphans (1:07)
  • Pleasure and Happiness (2:56)
  • Les Courtisanes (1:35)
  • Beautiful Handles (2:34)
  • An Old Woman (5:01)

Running Time: 46 minutes 30 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6961 (2009)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat and Jean-Pascal Beintus. Featured musical soloists Carmine Lauri, James Boyd and Caroline Dale. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman. Edited by Tony Lewis. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat and Solre Lemonnier.

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