Home > Reviews > ALEXANDRE DESPLAT: EN FRANÇAIS – PART ONE

ALEXANDRE DESPLAT: EN FRANÇAIS – PART ONE

February 11, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Over the past decade or so, Alexandre Desplat has cemented his status amongst the world’s most respected film composers with a series of scores for major studio films in the United States. He has been nominated for eleven Academy Awards – for The Queen (2006), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), The King’s Speech (2010), Argo (2012), Philomena (2013), The Imitation Game (2014), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), The Shape of Water (2017), Isle of Dogs (2018), and Little Women (2019) – winning twice. However, much of his early work in his native France remains relatively unknown to wider audiences – something this article intends to rectify!

In this first installment of Alexandre Desplat: En Français, we take a look at six of the first scores he wrote during the earliest part of his career in the early 1990s, beginning with his very first collaboration with one of his most frequent directors, Jacques Audiard.

 

REGARDE LES HOMMES TOMBER [SEE HOW THEY FALL] (1994)

The very first full soundtrack ever released for a Desplat film was for Regarde Les Hommes Tomber, known in English as See How They Fall, a crime drama from 1994 directed by Jacques Audiard. It’s a story about revenge and obsession and stars Jean Yanne as Simon, a lonely and unfulfilled sales representative who goes on a journey of redemption when he tries to track down the people who shot his friend, Mickey, a police officer. The film also stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Bulle Ogier, and was the cinematic debut of Audiard, who has since gone on to be regarded as one of France’s most respected directors. It was also the first of seven films that Audiard and Desplat have worked on together.

Desplat’s score is somewhat unusual, with a tone and approach that seems to be at odds with the film’s subject matter. The main theme, “Regarde les Hommes Tomber,” is an unexpectedly sprightly little dance for an accordion accompanied by spiky, prancing string passages, which sets up the Simon character as something of a sad-sack with something to prove. Darker textures emerge as the score develops and becomes more invested in the revenge plot; light, but slightly anguished-sounding woodwinds are offset against sonorous strings in cues like “Les Jours Passent,” while a pretty but downcast piano line emerges later in “La Mort de Marx,” adding a level of somber emotion to the film’s downbeat climax.

The soundtrack album, on the La Bande Son label, is littered with dialogue tracks performed by the lead actors – a relic of the 1990s that has been, thankfully, consigned to the dustbin. The album is somewhat difficult to find these days, but selections of the score can also be found on the compilation album ‘Alexandre Desplat-Jacques Audiard’ released by Playtime Records in 2006, which also includes music from Sur Mes Lèvres, Un Héros Très Discret, and De Battre Mon Coeur S’Est Arrêté.

Track Listing: 1. Danse [dialogue] (0:30), 2. Regarde les Hommes Tomber (1:11), 3. Les Jours Passent (1:34), 4. La Cassette [dialogue] (0:24), 5. Stud Poker (1:46), 6. Les Godasses [dialogue] (0:50), 7. La Quête de Simon (1:52), 8. Il Faut Payer Maintenant (1:42), 9. Le Chien Magique (1:09), 10. Les Stages [dialogue] (0:47), 11. Johnny a un Flingue (1:13), 12. La Mort de Marx (1:45), 13. Les Canards [dialogue] (0:49), 14. Tout Pour Mickey (0:39), 15. Tout Bascule (1:03), 16. Les Couilles [dialogue] (0:45), 17. Le Rêve de Simon (2:42), 18. Le Suicide de Johnny (1:05), 19. Les Tueurs (1:52), 20. La Pizza (0:38), 21. La Menace [dialogue] (0:25), 22. Quand les Hommes Tombent (1:38), 23. Une Odeur de Meurtre (1:04), 24. Le Voyageur de Commerce (1:05), 25. Marx et Johnny (2:35), 26. La Chute de Simon (1:02), 27. Rideau [dialogue] (0:14), 28. La Mort de Marx 2 (1:48), 29. Regarde les Hommes Tomber 2 (1:53). La Bande Son LBS-110894, XX minutes XX seconds.

 

MARIE-LOUISE OU LA PERMISSION (1995)

Marie-Louise ou la Permission is a light-hearted and whimsical romantic comedy drama, written and directed by Manuel Flèche. It stars Kate Beckinsale as Marie-Louise, an American woman living in Paris, who is due to meet her lover Jean-Paul (Eric Ruf), who is arriving home on military leave. Unfortunately, circumstances conspire such that Marie-Louise goes to the wrong train station to meet him, and she and Jean-Paul spend the next 24 hours running around the city looking for each other. Hilarity ensues!

The score for Marie-Louise ou la Permission is light and breezy, with a stereotypically French joie de vivre that doesn’t often infect Desplat’s music, but is nevertheless wonderfully vivacious and enjoyable. An effervescent melody dances between woodwinds, pianos, sharp trumpets, and lively strings in the opening “Les Cartes Postales” (which even works in a burst of “Le Marseillaise” and an accordion in waltz time, natch), and then again in the conclusive “Tout Ça Pour un Baiser”. It has a sort of Carl Stalling, Tom and Jerry vibe, conveying movement and a slight sense of panic, but still retaining approachability and a sense of musicality.

There are several moments of scattershot action and breathless energy, usually for accordions underpinned by tempestuous strings and a jazz combo, to accompany Marie-Louise’s frantic sprints across the city from tourist spot to tourist spot – “Gare du Nord,” “La Petite Américaine (Musette),” “La Moblyette,” “Gare de l’Est,” for example – and even some bursts of world music, from the flamboyant mambo in “Padre la Silla” to the African tribal rhythms in “Brauner Zombie Dance,” and the faux-Italian tarantella dance “Jean-Paul Tout Un,” which are quite unexpected.

However, for me, the centerpieces of the score are the utterly gorgeous romantic themes. The first, heard in “La Pyramide,” is gently romantic, and sways delicately to elegant woodwinds. The second, in “Le Chagrin de Marie-Louise” and its reprise, is an old-fashioned and slightly bittersweet melody for strings and woodwinds that simply melts into your eardrums. Marie-Louise ou la Permission is a light and unassuming score by most Desplat standards, but it’s thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, and clearly shows his more romantic and quirky musical side with great panache.

Track Listing: 1. La Petite Américaine (Marie-Louise) (performed by Kate Beckinsale) (4:23), 2. Les Cartes Postales (2:04), 3. La Pyramide (1:17), 4. Gare de l’Est, c’est Gare de l’Est (0:11), 5. Gare du Nord (2:31), 6. Le Chagrin de Marie-Louise (Orchestre) (1:40), 7. Waterproof Walk (2:13), 8. La Petite Américaine (Musette) (1:06), 9. Cinq Grands Trompettistes Blancs (0:22), 10. Padre la Silla (Mambo) (3:17), 11. Brauner Zombie Dance (2:43), 12. Trompette Méthode Américaine (0:41), 13. La Mobylette (1:56), 14. La Vedette du Pont-Neuf (1:24), 15. Jean-Paul Tout Un (Tarentelle) (0:58), 16. Aimer Son Prochain (0:25), 17. Le Petit Chat Abandonné (1:03), 18. Le Chagrin de Marie-Louise (1:40), 19. Gare de l’Est (1:51), 20. Trompette c’est Dimanche (0:06), 21. Waterproof Walk Two (1:03), 22. La Fille aux Nichons d’Acier (performed by M. Alarcon) (3:40), 23. Comme Si Tout ke Monde Avait d’l’Argent (1:09), 24. La Petite Américaine (Duette) (1:20), 25. Chanson d’A. (performed by Rita Mitsuoko) (3:15), 26. La Vérité est Précieuse (0:29), 27. Tout Ça Pour un Baiser (1:34), 28. La Petite Américaine (Duo) (performed by Kate Beckinsale and Yann Collette) (5:39). La Bande Son 480-741-2, 50 minutes 00 seconds.

 

LES MILLES (1995)

Les Milles is an inspiring action-drama set during World War II, written and directed by Sébastien Grall. It tells the true story of Charles Perrochon, an officer in the French Army who, just after the French surrender to the Germans at the beginning of the war, courageously takes it upon himself to defy his superiors and redirect a train full of German refugees – mostly Jews and Communists who had fled their home as the Nazis came to power – to a neutral country, thus saving them from execution in concentration camps. The film stars Jean-Pierre Marielle as Perrochon, and has a supporting cast including Ticky Holgado, Philippe Noiret, and Kristin Scott-Thomas.

The score is fully orchestral and is built around a wonderful waltz-like theme that emerges in the opening cue, “Les Milles.” The theme is anchored by a light, charming saxophone melody that dances on top of swirling, undulating string and flute patterns, accompanied by light chimes, and a rolling snare drum rhythm, all of which seem to evoke the sway and sense of motion inherent in train travel. It’s quite brilliant the way Desplat is able to conjure up this feeling through such simple instrumental combinations; interestingly, the theme is much more chipper and upbeat than one would expect, considering the exceptionally serious subject matter of the film, but this undoubtedly becomes clearer in context.

More urgent string and percussion writing, often underpinned by a rhapsodic piano element, begins to assert itself as the score develops, and occasionally the rhythmic underbelly becomes quite strident, often approaching action music levels. There is also a curious, fluttering idea for a pennywhistle that darts in and around it all, bringing a touch of elegance to the intensity. Much of the woodwind writing actually reminds me of the dainty flutes John Williams would contribute to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004, an unusual and amusing bit of foreshadowing considering Desplat’s own subsequent contribution to that series.

The finale of the score blends some appropriately emotional writing for clarinets and solo cellos, some of which is clearly intended to represent the Jewish culture of some of the train passengers (“Elégie”), with some more sweeping moments of orchestral catharsis (“Le Devoir Rien Que le Devoir”) as Perrochon’s bravery and sacrifice is revealed. Unfortunately, the score for Les Milles is somewhat rare these days, but any chance to experience this excellent early Desplat effort is absolutely recommended.

Track Listing: 1. Les Milles (2:36), 2. Ca Fait d’Excellents Français (written by G. Van Parys and J. Boyer) (3:12), 3. Le Jour de la Liberté (3:48), 4. Les Prisonniers (1:23), 5. Rixe Sur Le Quai (1:24), 6. Français et Allemands Réunis (1:35), 7. Les Arrestations (2:54), 8. Jour Après Jour (2:19), 9. Ils Ont Pris Annonay (2:10), 10. Le Voyage de Nuit (4:09), 11. Les Milles – Version Piano (2:49), 12. Le Train Dans la Campagne (2:35), 13. Le Pont Est Miné (1:28), 14. L’Alerte Aérienne (3:24), 15. Le Capitaine et l’Etat Major (2:23), 16. Elégie (2:57), 17. Le Devoir Rien Que le Devoir (4:13), 18. Les Milles 2 (2:35). Sony Music/Epic Soundtrax 481106-2, 47 minutes 54 seconds.

 

UN HÉROS TRÈS DISCRET [A SELF-MADE HERO] (1996)

Un Héros Très Discret – known in English as A Self-Made Hero – is the second of the seven films that Desplat scores for director Jacques Audiard. The film is a satirical drama which examines the nature of heroism, and the thin line between fantasy and reality. It is set in the late 1940s in France during World War II and stars Mathieu Kassovitz as Albert Dehousse, a young man living in a small village who longs to be a hero. When Albert finds out that his late father, a World War One veteran, wasn’t as upstanding as he’d thought, and that his mother has been a Nazi collaborator, he leaves his home and heads to Paris, where he invents an entirely new persona for himself so that he can join the French Resistance. The film was a major success in France, and was nominated for multiple César Awards – one of which was for Desplat’s score, the first major nomination of his career.

The score is slightly understated for most of its running time, and is split into two distinct halves: Albert’s life before he joins the resistance in Paris, and his life afterwards. The music for Albert’s early life in his small hometown village is, for want of a better phrase, ‘French rustic’. The main “Thème du Héros” uses fiddles, pizzicato textures, and unusual watery-sounding percussion ideas. The fiddle comes back, in a new arrangement for pianos, in the jaunty “Les Aventures d’Albert,” which has clear echoes of Michael Nyman. “L’Enfance à Lambersart” introduces a playful classical guitar to accompany the pizzicato strings. Later, “Le Soleil a Rendez-Vous Avec la Pluie” does some unusual things with the percussion section, using glass sounds and what appears to be someone blowing down the wrong end of an oboe, to capture the sounds of rain and wind.

The other main theme that runs through the score is “La Vérité Ou La Mort,” a pompous mock-march for pianos and varied strings that lumbers its way across the orchestra, acting as sort of a motif for Albert’s conscience – the title translates to ‘truth or death,’ and the significance of that concept gradually makes itself felt as the score moves into its more serious second half. The darker sound begins to assert itself in “Départ en Train,” where Desplat makes his guitars take on the feel of a sitar playing an Indian raga, which is very unusual. Later, “Au Royal Lepic” uses ground basses in a very prominent fashion, “De Paris à Baden-Baden” reprises the ideas heard earlier in “Les Aventures d’Albert,” while “Les Femmes d’A. Dehousse” feels almost like a stripped-down piece from a spaghetti western, full of lonesome fiddles and plucked harps.

Un Héros Très Discret is one of Alexandre Desplat’s more idiosyncratic scores, blurring the lines between truth and embellishment, so that you are left feeling constantly off-balance by the music. Its peculiar tempos and jittery textures are a perfect representation of a man who is trying to get the truth of his past and – consequently – the truth of he is, as he comes face to face with the reality of war. It’s not a score which will appeal to those who appreciate his more straightforward and emotionally direct orchestral writing, but there’s just enough in this off-kilter combination of sounds to make it compelling nevertheless.

Track Listing: 1. J’Vais Vous Raconter Une Histoire/Thème du Héros (2:12), 2. La Vérité Ou La Mort? (2:08), 3. Les Aventures d’Albert (2:18), 4. L’Enfance à Lambersart (4:14), 5. Les Années de Guerre Qui Passent… (1:29), 6. La Lettre (2:10), 7. Le Soleil a Rendez-Vous Avec la Pluie (2:31), 8. Thème du Héros (Extrait I) (0:56), 9. Albert Apprend Son Rôle (1:24), 10. Départ en Train (2:37), 11. Au Royal Lepic (1:54), 12. Mr Jo (0:45), 13. De Paris à Baden-Baden (1:26), 14. Anéanti…Anéanti (1:20), 15. Albert est Découvert (1:17), 16. Les Femmes d’A. Dehousse (2:36), 17. Thème du Héros (Extrait II) (0:43), 18. Sur la Corde Raide (1:28), 19. Le Mardi à Soho (1:10), 20. L’Enfance à Lambersart (Reprise) (4:13), 21. La Vraie Vie (3:49), 22. Thème du Héros (In Extenso) (4:04). Odeon 852247-2, 46 minutes 44 seconds.

 

LES PÉCHÉS MORTELS [INNOCENT LIES] (1996)

Innocent Lies is an Anglo-French mystery thriller directed by Patrick Dewolf, loosely based on the novel ‘Towards Zero’ by Agatha Christie. Set in the 1930s, it stars Adrian Dunbar as Alan Cross, a British detective who travels to a small town on the French coast in order to investigate the death of a colleague. Cross soon discovers that the prime suspects are members of an English aristocratic family who live locally, many of whom have skeletons in their closets, and numerous motives for murder. The film co-stars Stephen Dorff, Joanna Lumley, and Gabrielle Anwar, as well as 10-year-old Keira Knightley making her big-screen debut.

The score is anchored by two main themes, both of which drip with period elegance, romance, and a touch of eroticism. The “Solange Theme” is anchored by a superb piano melody of fragility and grace, which gradually transfers to light woodwinds and warm brass, accented by delicate strings that put me in mind of several later Desplat scores like Lust Caution, or even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The other main theme, the “Main Title Theme,” is a little more insistent, with synth percussion, and a more ominous tone to its central melody, which is replete with dark shimmering strings, sultry saxophones, and moody brasses that remind me a little of Jerry Goldsmith’s Basic Instinct.

These two main themes dominate the score – cues like “The Tennis Game,” the occasionally quite abrasive “Cross Investigates,” “Jeremy’s Desire,” the climactic “The Obsession” – are extended variations on the same style – but there are numerous moments where Desplat allows other elements to shine. The piano writing in “Love for Two,” for example, has an air of Cole Porter or Noel Coward about it, while the vocal scatting (performed by Desplat himself) is 1930s period-perfect. Conversely, the 7-minute “Murder of a Child” explores some quite wicked depths, with a more dissonant sound full of agitated strings and rumbling percussion textures, as well as regular allusions to the main theme. The one action sequence is “The Child Killer,” in which allows his strings and piano to go into frantic overdrive, and Desplat re-arranges both his recurring main themes into a chase full of thrilling energy.

For me, Innocent Lies is one of the best scores of Desplat’s early career. The shadowy central main themes are deliciously beguiling, and surprisingly sultry, while the suspense and action music allows the score to inject some life and electricity into the proceedings. Best of all, it shows yet another string to Desplat’s bow – after specializing mostly in quirky dramas or romantic comedies, Dsplat showcases his Hollywood thriller credentials here, with excellent results.

Track Listing: 1. Que Reste-t-Il de Nos Amours (performed by Patricia Kaas), 2. Solange Theme (1:41), 3. J’Attendrai (performed by Jean Sablon), 4. Main Title Theme (2:43), 5. La Morocha (performed by Ada Falcon), 6. C’est Lui Que Mon Coeur a Choisi (performed by Edith Piaf), 7. The Tennis Game (3:49), 8. Love For Two (3:23), 9. Cross Investigates (3:33), 10. Jeremy’s Desire (2:35), 11. Que Reste-t-Il de Nos Amours (performed by Charles Trenet), 12. Solange Theme – Piano (0:55), 13. Si j’Étais Blanche (performed by Josephine Baker), 14. Murder of a Child (7:50), 15. Gutter Mann Im Mond (performed by Rossito Serrano), 16. The Lovers (2:05), 17. Celia’s Theme – Piano (0:54), 18. The Mooche (performed by Duke Ellington), 19. The Obsession (1:45), 20. The Child Killer (3:18), 21. Love For Two – Piano (1:53), 22. Celia’s Theme (3:07), 23. I Wish You Love (performed by Patricia Kaas). Polydor 529-230-2, 39 minutes 39 seconds.

 

LOVE, ETC. (1996)

Love, Etc. is a romantic comedy-drama directed by Marion Vernoux, based on the English-language novel ‘Talking It Over’ by Julian Barnes. It is the story of a love triangle in which each of the three people concerned take it in turns to tell their version of story. The insecure and nerdy Benoît (Yvan Attal), and his flamboyant best friend Pierre (Charles Berling), have been inseparable since school. Benoît meets and falls in love with Marie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the girl of his dreams, but at their wedding it becomes apparent that, over the preceding months, Pierre has fallen in love with Maria too, and is plotting to win her affections and steal her away from Benoît.

As one might expect, Love, Etc. showcases Desplat as his most intimate and romantic, using his orchestra to create a tapestry of love that is quite superb to experience. The main theme, “Le Portel,” is one of his lush dances, with different sections of the orchestra performing different rhythmic ideas and eventually coming to together to form a glorious whole – lightly prancing woodwinds, staccato strings, florid trumpets, elegant piano lines, al glorious. This main theme recurs frequently, but to his credit Desplat is never content simply to repeat it ad nauseam, and instead allows several other ideas to play a prominent role.

The title track, “L’Amour, Etc,” is somehow both softly personal and gloriously rapturous at the same time, and is anchored by some sumptuous, if occasionally a little dark, string writing. The subsequent “Thème de Marie” is perhaps the best of the lot; achingly emotional, romantic, but with a hint of longing in the strings that is just gorgeous; its reprise in “Marie Peint” is just as delicious. At the other end of the spectrum, “Le Mariage” is a pompous and comedic little waltz for a brass band, and “Les Confidences de Benoît” has a touch of the renaissance in its cascading string writing, while “La Trahison” uses churning string figures and spiraling woodwinds to convey the ‘treason’ at the center of the story.

The dark textures of romantic betrayal continue in cues like “Les Soupçons de Benoît,” “Rendez-Vous en l’An 2000,” and “Les Nuits d’Hôtel,” which feel like precursors to the music Desplat wrote for scores like Girl With a Pearl Earring, parts of List Caution, and The Danish Girl. Everything comes to a head in the conclusive pair, “L’Amour, Etc. (Reprise)” and “Blakenberg Ler Janvier 2000,” which return to the main themes in some of their longest and deepest explorations, and end the score on a thematic high. Also worth mentioning is the main title song, which Desplat wrote with director Marion Vernoux and is performed by lead actress Charlotte Gainsbourg in a breathless manner that channels Jane Birkin’s performance of her father’s song “Je t’aime… moi non plus” back in 1967.

I really adore this score, and feel that it is the perfect response to those who accuse Desplat of being cold and emotionless in his music; Love, Etc. overflows with emotion, passion, and drama, and tackles the concept of love from multiple angles, whether you are in the throes of it, or whether it has been snatched away from you by your supposed best friend.

Track Listing: 1. Love, Etc. (written by Alexandre Desplat and Marion Vernoux, performed by Charlotte Gainsbourg) (4:35), 2. Take This Waltz (written by Federico Garcia Lorca and Leonard Cohen, performed by Leonard Cohen) (5:54), 3. Z’Holyday (written by Jean-Pierre Sluys and Thomas Bidegain, performed by The Zombietles) (3:27), 4. Nessun Dorma, from Turandot (written by Giacomo Puccini, performed by Eugenio Fernandi) (2:55), 5. Le Portel (2:20), 6. La Première Rencontre (0:36), 7. L’Amour, Etc. (4:21), 8. Thème de Marie (1:16), 9. Le Mariage (1:29), 10. Les Confidences de Benoît (1:14), 11. Pierre est Amoureux (1:03), 12. L’Usure du Temps (1:00), 13. La Trahison (1:08), 14. La Déclaration d’Amour (1:01), 15. La Fleuriste (0:30), 16. Les Soupçons de Benoît (0:39), 17. Rendez-Vous en l’An 2000 (1:31), 18. Marie Peint (1:38), 19. Les Nuits d’Hôtel (2:21), 20. Le Jardin de Pierre (1:10), 21. L’Amour, Etc. (Reprise) (4:22), 22. Blakenberg Ler Janvier 2000 (2:04). PCC/Source/Virgin 724384275525, 46 minutes 34 seconds.

  1. February 11, 2020 at 11:18 pm

    Nice read Jon,
    Although I’m not particularly fan of his Jacques Audiard-scores some of his early work I’d love to add to Screensoundradio if I could lay my hands on them.

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