Home > Reviews > Best Scores of 2017 – France, Part I

Best Scores of 2017 – France, Part I

December 18, 2017

The second installment in my annual series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world concentrates on music from films from the land of Delerue, Jarre, and Desplat: la belle France! There has been an embarrassment of riches emanating from French cinema in 2017, and this first set of six reviews encompasses a number of outstanding scores, including two by one of Composers of the Year, Cyrille Aufort.

AU REVOIR LÀ-HAUT – Christophe Julien

Au Revoir Là-Haut [See You Up There] is a French comedy-drama written and directed by Albert Dupontel, based on the acclaimed novel by Pierre Lemaitre. Set in 1918, just days before the Armistice that ended World War I, the film follows the misadventures of two soldiers, Albert (director Dupontel) and Edouard (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who become unlikely friends during their time in the trenches. After Albert witnesses a war crime committed by one his own superior officers, and after having has his report ignored by military administration, the pair return to civilian life, and hatch a revenge plot to swindle the French government.

The score Au Revoir Là-Haut is by 45-year-old French composer Christophe Julien, who has been working in French cinema since the early 2000s and whose most prominent scores prior to this were for the 2003 comedy 9-Month Stretch, the 2015 romantic drama Le Gout des Merveilles, and the 2016 sci-fi adventure Ares. This is my first exposure to Julien’s music and, overall, I’m quite impressed; he seems to have a mastery of multiple different styles of writing, ranging from period-appropriate big band pieces such as the opening “Albert Swing,” to more traditional dramatic scoring for a full orchestra and a number of lyrical specialty instruments.

Several cues stand out as being of special note. “Seul” features some lovely, intimate oboe writing underpinned by pizzicato strings, which slowly opens up into a fully orchestral theme. “L’Arnaque et la Poste” is more strident and forceful, with thrusting strings beneath an elegant dulcimer melody. The dreadful oppression of war is truthfully conveyed in the darkly melodic “Le Champ de Bataille,” but is counterbalanced by a beautiful waltz-theme for piano in “Pauline et Albert Chez les Péricourt”.

Later, “Darkness et la Côte 113” is a superb piece of action writing that showcases dark, brutal brass cords and kinetic snare drum riffs. “Les Masques” reprises the theme from the opening cue with a gorgeous romantic lilt. “La Recherche de Pradelle” is a flamboyant and intricate gallop for interweaving strings, brass, and woodwinds, conveying speed and movement. The conclusive “Bon Voyage, Soldat Maillard” adds a spectacular solo female vocalist into the mix, offering a superb final statement of the main theme.

Oddly, the soundtrack also includes two cues from Debbie Wiseman’s score for Dickensian, two tracks from Rachel Portman’s score for Despite the Falling Snow, one cue from Ennio Morricone’s classic Investigation of a Citizen Under Suspicion, and one cue from an obscure Nino Rota score from 1966, Spara Forte Più Forte Non Capisco. My assumption is that these are temp-track pieces that were left in the film and ultimately licensed for the soundtrack.

Overall, this is very impressive writing from a composer who is new to me, and I will certainly be looking for Christophe Julien scores in the future. The orchestral writing is dynamic and mostly tonal, with several lovely themes that range from optimistic to appropriately sorrowful, and he shows a range of talent that also encompasses some striking action cues, big band pieces, and moments of instrumental creativity. Recommended.

Track Listing: 1. Albert Swing (3:23), 2. Seul (2:16), 3. L’Arnaque et la Poste (1:51), 4. T’es Joli (1:11), 5. Le Champ de Bataille (2:03), 6. Pauline et Albert Chez les Péricourt (2:48), 7. Raquel (from ‘Spara Forte Più Forte Non Capisco’ by Nino Rota) (1:23), 8. Le Cimetière (2:17), 9. Il M’A Vue Nue (performed by Mistinguett Orchestre Jazz Fred Mêlé du Moulin Rouge) (3:07), 10. Le Sable (1:27), 11. Darkness et la Côte 113 (1:12), 12. I Won’t Ruin Him (from ‘Despite the Falling Snow’ by Rachel Portman) (3:24), 13. Suspicion (from ‘Indagine su un Cittadino al di Sopra di Ogni Sospetto’ by Ennio Morricone) (2:47), 14. Le Miroir (1:12), 15. Les Photos (3:03), 16. Bucket of the Detective (from ‘Dickensian’ by Debbie Wiseman) (2:38), 17. Ne Te Retourne Pas (2:18), 18. Variety Stomp (performed by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra) (3:03), 19. Dernière Heure (1:14), 20. Les Masques (1:06), 21. La Recherche de Pradelle (1:29), 22. Pauline et le Glas (1:05), 23. La Sortie de l’Hôpital (0:55), 24. I Was Blackmailed (from ‘Despite the Falling Snow’ by Rachel Portman) (2:06), 25. Pauline, Albert et les Alliances (2:19), 26. What The Eye Doesn’t See (from ‘Dickensian’ by Debbie Wiseman) (3:22), 27. La Terrasse (3:40), 28. Bon Voyage, Soldat Maillard (4:36). Milan Records 3299039996324, 63 minutes 30 seconds.


KNOCK – Cyrille Aufort

Knock is a French comedy drama directed by Lorraine Lévy, adapted from the popular series of novels by Jules Romain, and is a remake of the 1951 film of the same name. Omar Sy plays the titular character, a former thug and conman who has become a doctor and arrives in the small village of Saint-Maurice intent on tricking the local villagers into thinking they have contracted various imaginary diseases, and then fleecing them out of their money by getting them to pay him to ‘cure’ their ‘diseases’. With his charm and good looks, Knock’s scheme looks like it is going to be a success – until his past starts to catch up with him. The film co-stars Alex Lutz, Ana Girardot, and Sabine Azéma, and has an original score by composer Cyrille Aufort.

Knock is one of three outstanding scores by Aufort in 2017 – the others being L’Empereur and Past Life – and, for me, is the best. It’s anchored by an absolutely sensational main theme: a fast, fleeting, playful dance for an effortlessly elegant piano, which segues into a solo violin, and then into a sweeping statement of a secondary theme for the full orchestra replete with swooping woodwinds. It’s charming, slightly old-fashioned, and has a twinkle in its eye, a perfect depiction of the central character’s personality. Tonally, it actually reminds me very much of John Williams’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and that’s absolutely intended to be a compliment.

After this stunning opening the rest of the score slightly pales in comparison, but it is still mightily impressive; Aufort takes the core instrumental ideas from the main theme and uses them in a series of light comic capers, prancing and dancing on musical tiptoes. The cues have a mischievous whimsy and the orchestrations are superb and creative, often featuring guest appearances from specialist instruments, including a Jew’s harp in “Whale Calf” and “Madame Rémi,” ticking woodblocks and other clacking percussion underpinning the main theme in “Consultation,” the sounds of mechanized clockwork at the beginning of “Waiting Room,” and a slightly distorted sounding jazz band in the creatively rhythmic “Lansky”.

“Adèle” and “Adèle and Knock” are a pretty romantic pieces, the former featuring a prominent glockenspiel and deftly elegant flutes that eventually emerges into graceful strings, the latter a more straightforward piece haunted by a melancholic edge; the same theme is performed with a disconsolate sound in “Farewell to Adèle”. “Arrival at Saint-Maurice” and “The Age of Medicine” both offer fulsome arrangements of different parts of the Knock theme, and are wonderfully evocative, while “Student Lacoste” provides a more prominent recapitulation of the theme with the main rhythmic idea transposed to bright horns. The one piece of genuine drama comes in “Knock vs. Lupus,” in which Aufort uses slow strings and serious woodwinds to underscore Knock dealing with a real illness in the community.

The score concludes with stunning final restatements of both the love theme, the main theme, and the Saint-Maurice theme in “Promise Me To Be Happy” and “Knock – Reprise,” capping off a truly superb work. Aufort’s score is so full of life and energy, so creatively rendered, and is endlessly infectious, especially through its repeated variations on the main thene. Some may find the theme to be a little on the twee side, but I love it – it’s one of my favorite new pieces of the year.

Track Listing: 1. Theme from Knock (2:30), 2. Whale Calf (2:55), 3. Adèle (1:36), 4. Madame Rémi (2:42), 5. Arrival at Saint-Maurice (1:28), 6. Professor Bernard (1:31), 7. The Age of Medicine (1:04), 8. Student Lacoste (1:55), 9. Adèle and Knock (1:18), 10. Consultation (1:36), 11. Waiting Room (1:15), 12. Lansky (2:21), 13. Sanatorium (1:25), 14. Farewell to Adèle (2:07), 15. Knock vs Lupus (2:36), 16. Forward! (1:47), 17. Promise Me to Be Happy (3:38), 18. Knock – Reprise (0:59). Quartet Records/Moviescore Media MMS-17018, 34 minutes 41 seconds.


L’EMPEREUR – Cyrille Aufort

L’Empereur is a French documentary feature directed by Luc Jacquet, and is essentially a sequel to the massively popular 2005 film March of the Penguins. Using new, state of the art techniques and cutting-edge technology, director Jacquet follows one particular emperor penguin as he embarks on an epic journey across his harsh Antarctic home. It was released in cinemas in France in February 2017 to critical acclaim, and is set to be released in the United States in 2018 with the title ‘March of the Penguins 2: The Call’.

The score for L’Empereur is by composer Cyrille Aufort, and is quite gorgeous. This is one of Aufort’s three outstanding scores in 2017 – the others being Knock and Past Life – all of which cement him as possibly the best young French composer to emerge in the film music since Alexandre Desplat and Philippe Rombi.

Gentle pianos, metallic percussion, and synths create a wonderful wintry, icy atmosphere in cues like the opening “L’Appel,” “Parade Amoureuse,” “Le Petit Empereur,” “Le Monde Sous-Marin,” and several others, that is quite evocative, while the main thematic idea for woodwinds which develops as the cue progresses gives the main character a personality the listener can connect with. Subsquent performances of the theme in cues like the stirring “Maman Ne Revient Pas,” the second half of the aforementioned “Le Petit Empereur,” “La Séparation,” are superb, often featuring fuller and more sweeping orchestral arrangements to enhance the emotional impact.

Playfully elegant textures including fluttery woodwinds, warm brass, and searching strings run through cues like “Loamok,” the bouncy and spiky “La Crèche,” “Glissades,” and the circus-like “Les Manchots Adélie” enhancing the inherent comedy the birds often display, whereas the three “Marche” cues and the subsequent “Dangereux Premiers Pas” are a little more dramatic, using synth textures, soft choral ideas, and a more strident percussive base to underscore the hardships and dangers the penguins face on a daily basis. The final cue, “Un Nouveau Cycle Commence,” is a wonderful 5-minute summation of the score’s main textural and dramatic ideas, which begins with understated textures but slowly grows to a stunning conclusive statement of the main theme for the full orchestra.

The whole score for L’Empereur is just delightful; thematically beautiful, tonally pleasing, and with an overarching sense of wonderment and playfulness that captures the dichotomy of these creatures: on land they are bumbling and clumsy, in the ocean they are sleek and graceful, and they endure the most terrible weather conditions in order to create and preserve life. The way Aufort conveys this through his music is excellent.

Track Listing: 1. L’Appel (2:16), 2. Loamok (1:30), 3. Parade Amoureuse (2:02), 4. Maman Ne Revient Pas (2:25), 5. 1ère Marche (2:57), 6. 2ème Marche (3:07), 7. La Crèche (2:20), 8. Les Pétrels Géants (1:40), 9. Le Petit Empereur (1:31), 10. 3ème Marche (2:09), 11. Le Monde Sous-Marin (2:02), 12. Les Grandes Profondeurs (2:04), 13. Dangereux Premiers Pas (3:17), 14. La Séparation (1:23), 15. Le Dernier Voyage (4:32), 16. Nouveau Plumage (2:59), 17. Glissades (2:16), 18. La Marche des Petits (1:29), 19. C’Est Donc ça l’Océan! (2:16), 20. Les Manchots Adélie (1:02), 21. Un Nouveau Cycle Commence (5:07). Bonne Pioche Music, 50 minutes 33 seconds.


L’ÉPREUVE D’AMOUR – Fabrice Aboulker

L’Épreuve d’Amour is a French romantic drama film directed by Arnaud Sélignac, starring Marie-Josée Croze, Fred Testot, and Grégoire Plantade. It follows the story of Marielle and Paul, an outwardly normal married couple in contemporary Paris. One day Marielle returns home early from work and is shocked to find Paul dressed in her clothes; he tearfully confesses that, for the entire 20 years they have been married, he has felt that he was transgender, but was too ashamed to admit it. Despite Marielle’s support Paul convince her that he wants to remain a man, but suicide attempt makes Marielle realize that Paul’s life is more important to her than his appearance, so decides to take some drastic steps to save their marriage.

The score for L’Épreuve d’Amour is by Franco-Algerian composer Fabrice Aboulker, who has been diligently working in French television and cinema since the mid 1990s, and who recently impressed me with his 2013 animation score Ma Maman Est En Amérique Elle a Rencontré Buffalo Bill. This is a culturally relevant story which Aboulker had to approach carefully, but thankfully his skill was such that this potentially difficult musical task was achieved with sensitivity. His main theme is a gently see-sawing piece for strings, which is heard fully in the brief “Main Theme” cue, but which leaves its footprints all over the score in terms of its tone and quality, notably in the equally brief “Papa Je Te Soutiens,” and “Ma Soeur et Moi”.

Several cues are notable for their quiet, intimate textures. Piano, guitar, and strings combine in the lovely, heartfelt, but somewhat downbeat “Rejeté Par Son Fils,” while more minimalistic, anxiously rhythmic ideas for piano, solo cello, synths, and dreamy voices weave their way through “Je Hais Ce Mec.” The piano and string writing of “Désir Perturbé” reminds me of something Alan Silvestri might write for one of his low-key dramas, and “Tu Vas Guérir” feels like music to accompany a quiet mental collapse, with its broken piano chords and wandering string ideas. “Parano” is where the score reaches its dramatic apex, while the subsequent “Biarritz” is like a breath of French fresh air, sunny and warm with acoustic guitars and light strings.

The brief score album – which is just 18 minutes in length – concludes with an original song in French, “L’Amour au-Delà,” performed with cigarette-stained throatiness by singer and actor Marc Lavoine, which I quite like. Despite its brevity, the music in L’Épreuve d’Amour casts a lovely spell, and does its best to treat a difficult subject matter with compassion and elegance.

Track Listing: 1. Rejeté Par Son Fils (1:23), 2. Je Hais Ce Mec (1:56), 3. Se Mettre à sa Place (0:44), 4. Désir Perturbé (2:03), 5. Mal Dans Mon Corps (3:07), 6. Tu Vas Guérir (2:11), 7. Papa Je Te Soutiens (0:27), 8. Je Recommencerai (1:34), 9. Ma Soeur et Moi (0:25), 10. Parano (0:44), 11. L’Épreuve d’Amour (Main Theme) (0:25), 12. Biarritz (1:18), 13. Retrouvailles (1:23), 14. L’Amour au-Delà (performed by Marc Lavoine) (2:48). Moksha Productions, 20 minutes 27 seconds.


LA BELLE ET LA MEUTE – Amine Bouhafa

La Belle et la Meute [Beauty and the Dogs] is a harrowing Arabic-language crime drama written and directed by Franco-Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania. It stars Mariam Al Ferjani as Mariam, a Tunisian student who goes to a party and meets a fellow student, Youssuf, played by Ghanem Zrelli. Mariam and Youssef have an immediate chemistry, and go to a local beach to get to know each other better; however, shockingly, Mariam is raped by three policemen who were watching them from the street. Traumatized and terrorized, Mariam and Youssef go to the hospital for help, but are turned away by the hospital’s overly-bureaucratic staff; as the local police force is more interested in covering up the crime and protecting the perpetrators than helping the victim, Mariam realizes that if she wants justice, she must take matters into her own hands.

The score for La Belle et la Meute is by French-Tunisian composer Amine Bouhafa, who burst onto the film music scene in 2014 with his debut score Timbuktu, for which he won the César Award for Best Original Score. This is my first exposure to Bouhafa’s music and, by and large, I’m impressed. The main title is an elegant, sparkling, pretty collision of textures for piano, harp, violin, and North African woodwinds, underpinned by a bed of tremolo strings, which becomes quite vivacious and expressive as it develops – a stunning opening.

For the most part, the rest of Bouhafa’s work is dark and moody, as befits the terrible events that Mariam endures, and the lack of compassion and support she receives afterwards. Some cues are noteworthy – “Dark Empty Streets” and “In Front of the Police Station” feature evocative ethnic woodwind solo over a bed of droning synths and strings; “Loneliness” sounds exactly as you think it would, with extended and elongates string textures and tinkling pianos conveying a sense of quiet desperation and loss; and “Running from the Dogs” underpins the strings with a heartbeat synth pulse that increases in volume and intensity.

However, the middle section of the score tends to get a little bogged down in its own oppressiveness, and endless series of glacial, vaguely depressing textures which blend into one another. Things pick up a little in the finale – “Anxiety” becomes increasingly frantic, “Facing the Dogs” is an all-too-brief action sequence for throaty brass and choppy, intense string work, and the conclusive “A Cape, Not a Veil” offers a little calm catharsis – but by this point some listeners might have checked out. Personally, though, I liked the journey, and was mostly impressed with Bouhafa’s dramatic sensibility and interesting instrumental combinations, and I will certainly be looking for his other scores in future.

Track Listing: 1. Beauty and the Dogs (Main Title) (4:36), 2. Dark Empty Streets (2:42), 3. Out of the Hospital (1:42), 4. Loneliness (2:23), 5. Entering the Police Station (1:10), 6. What Happened that Night (1:14), 7. Running from the Dogs (1:18), 8. In Front of the Police Station (2:30), 9. Escaping from the Hospital (1:55), 10. The Gynecologist (1:03), 11. Walking in Streets (1:37), 12. Feeling Dizzy (1:15), 13. Meeting Him (1:52), 14. The Hospital Corridor (0:45), 15. Anxiety (1:21), 16. The Victim (0:51), 17. Facing the Dogs (0:48), 18. A Cape, Not a Veil (1:19). 22D Music, 30 minutes 28 seconds.


LE COEUR EN BRAILLE – Philippe Jakko

Le Coeur en Braille [Heartstrings] is a life-affirming French comedy-drama written and directed by Michel Boujenah. It stars Alix Vaillot as Marie, a teenage girl and excellent young cello player who, shockingly, discovers that she suffering from a degenerative eye disease, and quickly loses her sight. In the middle of the school year her well-meaning parents decide to move her to a boarding school for the blind, but Marie instead decides that she wants to overcome her disability and instead compete for a place at a prestigious music school with the help of her devoted, understanding boyfriend Victor.

The music for Le Coeur en Braille is by French composer Philippe Jakko, and is quite delightful. It’s light and whimsical and optimistic, with a child’s uncomplicated outlook on life, but its also very musically literate, considering that the film is as much about the pursuit of musical excellence as it is about the difficulties faced by a disabled teenager. The main “Ouverture” is just suberb, a set of fresh and airy classical piano scales accompanied by light dancing strings and lilting woodwinds. As the score itself progresses, as one would expect considering the instrument that Marie plays, the cello begins to assert itself more strongly, but Jakko’s feather-light piano writing, effervescent string lines, and delicate woodwind accents are never far away.

I’m especially fond of the optimism and charm of the fluttery flute writing and determined cello figures in “Gutemberg,” the more bittersweet and thoughtful “La Maman de Victor,” the more strident “Winston Churchill” and its extended cousin “La Complicité,” and the searing, emotional cello-based versions of the main theme in “Le Hangar à Bateaux” and “Main Dans la Main,” which appear to speak to Marie’s desperation as she finally goes blind. Several lovely re-statements of the dancing piano theme from the overture are present, in cues such as “Les Souvenirs,” and are just enchanting. What’s really striking is how Jakko somehow manages to take this set of strongly classical orchestrations and apply them to a very contemporary setting without them losing any of their impact as strong, rounded pieces of music. The use of the full instrumental palette, the performance flourishes, and the adherence to the acoustic ensemble throughout, is very impressive indeed; the way it all comes together in the joyous, uplifting “L’Audition” is wonderful.

The album features 35 minutes or so of Jakko’s original score, plus a classical piece – Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, BWV 974, which was itself a re-orchestrated version of the Agadio Alessandro Marcello Oboe Concerto in D Minor, S.Z799, and which here has been re-transcribed for cello and performed by Eve-Marie Caravassilis. It comes highly recommended by me, especially for anyone whose knowledge of this supremely talented but comparatively unknown French composer is lacking, and needs an introduction.

Track Listing: 1. Ouverture (2:50),2. Gutemberg (2:00), 3. La Maman de Victor (2:17), 4. Winston Churchill (1:10), 5. La Prière et l’Hôpital (2:50), 6. Le Hangar à Bateaux (1:19), 7. Marie et Victor se Confient (1:43), 8. Les Souvenirs (2:49), 9. La Complicité (5:27), 10. L’Enterrement (1:58), 11. Main Dans la Main (0:54), 12. L’Évasion (1:37), 13. La Lettre/Chez Marie (3:45), 14. Marie Perd la Vue (1:51), 15. Le Basket (0:49), 16. Marie Pleure (1:16), 17. L’Audition (1:24), 18. Concerto in D Minor, BWV 974 after Oboe Concerto in D Minor, S.Z799 – Adagio Transcribed for Cello (written by Johann Sebastian Bach and Alessandro Marcello, performed by Eve-Marie Caravassilis) (1:51). Gaumont, 37 minutes 59 seconds.

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  1. February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am
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