Home > Reviews > AO, LE DERNIER NÉANDERTAL – Armand Amar

AO, LE DERNIER NÉANDERTAL – Armand Amar

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Films about prehistoric man tend to fall into one of three camps: they are either straight-out action adventures in which the lead characters all happen to be cavemen (think 10,000BC), or they are hybrids in which modern humans and our Neolithic forebears interact (think Iceman or The Land That Time Forgot), or they are deadly serious character studies which try to genuinely recapture what life might have been like for our ancestors (think Clan of the Cave Bear or Quest for Fire). The French film Ao, Le Dernier Néandertal – The Last Neanderthal – is one of the latter. Directed by Jacques Malaterre and starring Simon Paul Sutton, Craig Morris and Aruna Shields, it tells the story of Ao, a Neanderthal man who, after the death of his entire clan – including his wife and child – decides to make the long trek to the area in which he was born, to try to reconnect with his long-lost brother. While making the perilous journey, Ao must cope with all manner of hardships, terrible weather, and animal attacks, and fears the worst – until he meets a woman called Aki, who is a member of a new and unusual clan which we know as homo sapiens

The music for Ao is by the French-Israeli-Moroccan composer Armand Amar. Despite having been writing film scores since the late 1990s, and despite being nominated for multiple Cèsar and IFMCA awards, Amar is not as well known as some of his countrymen on the international film music scene, which is a shame because the half-dozen or so scores I have heard from him – Le Premier Cri, Marco Polo, Moi Van Gogh, Home, Hors-La-Loi, Comme les Cinq Doigts de la Main, and this one – have all been uniformly excellent. Having grown up amongst a multitude of different cultures and musical influences, Amar’s music borrows liberally from a dozen different styles, ranging from Chinese to North African to Middle Eastern, and blends them beautifully with a western symphony orchestra, resulting in a score which is emotionally direct and quite beautiful, but which still maintains a soulful sound reflecting a long-forgotten culture.

Ao isn’t a score which has a strong main theme, but the texture and sound palette Amar employs is wonderful. In addition to the conventional orchestra, Amar uses a vast array of tribal drums, primitive woodwinds, wordless female vocalists, and all manner of shakers and rattles (including what sounds like an Aboriginal bullroarer), which combine to give the score a primordial feeling; a subtle sense of it all being a bit rough around the edges, as though the instruments weren’t whittled properly, weren’t tuned properly, and of the music being sung by voices that have never been used. It’s a very clever way of conveying a sense of age, timelessness, a harsh landscape, and potential danger lurking behind every rock.

After a minute or so of evocative vocal buildup, the 10-minute “Néandertal” suite provides a strong, lasting impression of the score’s main musical ideas. Beginning with a beautiful melody led by a Chinese erhu, the string-heavy orchestra quickly takes over, presenting a series of gentle, moving chords which illustrate Ao’s simple life. Before long, cellos rumble moodily, accompanied by harp glissandi, subtle gongs, thunder sheets and glassy bowls, giving the score a sense of brooding, almost religious reverence. Things become progressively darker as the cue continues; the strings are rudely interrupted by harsh brass notes, an array of thunderous drums, and surging string ostinati, insinuating that all is not right in Ao’s world. Once the chaos has died down the vocalists return, performing a haunting lament, before an Armenian duduk clarinet picks up the refrain, adding to the pitiable sorrow. This masterpiece cue encapsulates the tragedy of Ao’s life – from happiness to fear to despair – over the course of ten stunning minutes, and if this cue doesn’t convince you of what a great composer Amar is, nothing will.

Most of the rest of the score is based around variations of motifs heard in the opening piece. The moody duduk reappears in “Les Deux Fréres” and in “Le Dernier”, often combining with the erhu to excellent effect. A didgeridoo lends its unique, breathy tones to the first half of “Le Sacrifice”, where it combines with an ancient-sounding set of wooden percussion instruments and an unsettling string figure to create a mood of tension and uncertainty. “Le Voyage” captures the vastness of the landscape and the apparent futility of Ao’s journey with broad orchestral strokes, an epic drumbeat accompaniment, and another refrain from the howling female vocalists to remind us what Ao has lost.

The most conventionally beautiful cues are “Ouama”, in which the erhu combines with a solo cello to play a hesitantly noble theme; “Aki”, in which the violins dance skittishly over a mellow cello pedal; the gentle “L’Empreinte”, in which a solo violin takes center stage above a lovely, sensitive string and percussion backing; and the heavenly “Les Cheveaux” and “La Vieux Fou”, in which a full choir, tender harp glissandi and warm strings add an angelic sense of divine intervention to the score’s only real recurring thematic element: an ascending motif which seems to represent Ao’s memories of his former life.

A couple of strident, percussive action cues can be heard during the second half of “Le Sacrifice”, and later in the excellent “La Fuite”. In moments like these Amar’s music is a little reminiscent of something Brian Tyler or Graeme Revell might write for a film like this, with the bed of tribal drums leading the way, giving them energy, the orchestra providing additional forward motion, and the unique ethnic instruments doing their thing on top. The whole thing concludes with “Retour à la Vie” which brings the duduk back to the fore, but allows the percussive accompaniment and the familiar female vocals to take on an almost celebratory tone of triumphant resolution, ending the score on a high.

Music is a vitally important tool for the filmmaker in films like this, where the lead characters communicate through grunts and body language. The music has to convey all the emotion, all the pathos, all the inner meaning in the film, while still remaining suitable in context, and to his credit Amar manages to perfectly navigate the fine line between appropriateness and manipulation, while keeping his music intellectually interesting and enjoyable to listen to on its own merits. Despite its use of wailing female vocals and duduks, which Hans Zimmer did to death on Gladiator over a decade ago, Ao, Le Dernier Néandertal is a truly excellent work – one of 2010’s best dramatic scores – and comes highly recommended for those who seek out comparatively new and unheralded composers and aren’t afraid of music a little off the beaten path.

Rating: ****

Buy the Ao, Le Dernier Néandertal soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ao (1:48)
  • Neandertal (10:32)
  • Les Deux Fréres (3:03)
  • Le Sacrifice (3:51)
  • Ouama (2:48)
  • Aki (1:40)
  • Le Voyage (3:56)
  • La Fuite (3:27)
  • L’Empreinte (2:50)
  • Le Dernier (1:13)
  • Les Chevaux (2:52)
  • Le Vieux Fou (2:55)
  • Retour à la Vie (4:01)

Running Time: 44 minutes 42 seconds

Long Distance 740401 (2010)

Music composed and conducted by Armand Amar. Orchestrations by Camille Adrien and Sylvain Morizet. Album produced by Armand Amar.

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  1. Ghost
    August 6, 2011 at 8:17 am

    “Music composed and conducted by Armand Amar” ???
    A. Amar can’t read the music !

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