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

ALEXANDRE DESPLAT: EN FRANÇAIS – PART THREE

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 third installment of Alexandre Desplat: En Français, we take a look at five scores Desplat wrote during the first half of the 2000s, just as he was starting to make in-roads into the international film music scene.

AMAZONE (2000)

Amazone is a French adventure-comedy film written and directed by Philippe de Broca. It stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as Edouard and Arielle Dombasle as Margot, the two lead researchers at an astronomical outpost deep in the Amazon rain forest. One day, the researchers make a shocking discovery: radio signals emitting from deep in outer space seem to show signs of intelligent life. Soon after, a UFO lands close to the outpost, and Margot sets off to investigate it, leaving Edouard back at the facility. But then he makes a discovery of his own: sitting in a net in the jungle canopy is a 12-year old girl who, when asked who she is and where she comes from, replies that her name is Lulu and she is from ‘another world’…

Amazon was the second ‘jungle adventure’ Desplat scored in as many years, after A Monkey’s Tale, but the musical approach couldn’t be more different. Amazone drips with the sounds of Brazil, and is awash in various samba and salsa beats that conjure up indelible musical images of the country. There are also a number of notable instrumental textures that play a prominent role alongside the orchestra, notably flutes, bass flutes, and a harmonica, the latter of which is performed by virtuoso player Mauricio Einhorn.

There are a number of outstanding Latino dance-like pieces which groove and sway to all manner of festive regional rhythms. The opening “Salsa des Étoiles” is fun and energetic, and is anchored by the harmonica, but ends with a brief flourish of orchestral classicism. “Lulu’s Cha-Cha” is playful and elegant, and features the unusual sound of a calliope merged with various exotic percussion items and richly-textured guitars, while “Le Long Voyage de Lulu” features more jazz flute, and more harmonica, but a more sultry groove. Later, “Allo Lalo” is much more traditionally jazzy, and puts flutes, bass guitars, and unusual percussion items against each other over a rumba beat. The whole thing becomes much more effervescent towards the end, and its prominent trumpets may be an homage to the cue title namesake Lalo Schifrin. “Édouard le Magnifique” is fun reprise of the Salsa des Étoiles

Occasionally Desplat adopts a more traditionally orchestral tone, often with a slightly subdued or contemplative emotional range, and these cues are just lovely. “Amazone Générique” features lush, wondrous orchestral textures accompanied by prominent mixed flutes, ethnic percussion, and a generally peaceful attitude. “Rismo de Cabro” is soft and romantic, a lounge-like duet for harmonica and piano. “Beta Centaurus” is magical, a series of warm orchestral textures for strings and chimes. Both “A Travers la Vie” and “Le Sommeil Enchanté” are gentle and innocent, with pretty settings for child-like flutes which dart around playfully, accompanied by soft piano and strings.

The album is rounded out by trio of familiar pieces from the region, “Wave” and “Garota de Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the lounge jazz classic “Les Feuilles Mortes” by Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert. Amazone is quite a rare album these days, and sells for fairly hefty prices on the secondary market, but is well worth exploring for anyone looking for a Desplat score that deviates from the norm and embraces much more jazzy Latino style.

Track Listing: 1. Salsa des Étoiles (2:36), 2. Amazone Générique (2:15), 3. Lulu’s Cha-Cha (1:27), 4. M.G.V. (Mauricio à Grande Vitesse) (4:01), 5. Rismo de Cabro (4:06), 6. Le Long Voyage de Lulu (1:55), 7. Beta Centaurus (2:58), 8. Allo Lalo? (3:41), 9. Édouard le Magnifique (1:21), 10. Wave (written by Antonio Carlos Jobim) (8:36), 11. L’Homme de Cuba (1:33), 12. A Travers la Vie (1:48), 13. Garota de Ipanema (written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius De Moraes) (6:24), 14. Le Sommeil Enchanté (1:21), 15. Les Feuilles Mortes (written by Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert) (7:36), 16. Salsa des Étoiles – Reprise (2:36). Universal Music France 549051-2, 54 minutes 44 seconds.

 

LES PORTES DE LA GLOIRE (2001)

Les Portes de la Gloire – Doors of Glory – is a French comedy drama directed by Christian Merret-Palmair about the world of door-to-door salesmen. The film stars Benoît Poelvoorde as Régis, an unscrupulous experimental salesman who sells expensive encyclopedias to people who have no use for them and can’t really afford them anyway. A naïve young man named Jérôme Le Tallec (Julien Boisselier), who is about to marry the daughter of the sales company’s owner, is hired to be a new salesman, and Régis is tasked with showing Jérôme the tricks of the trade; however, as Jérôme witnesses how Régis manipulates his ‘customers’ with scams and lies, the more he begins to re-think his life.

Desplat’s score for the film is unusual, in that it is mostly built around a single theme, which is very jazzy and lively, and actually reminds me of the Oscar winning score Anne Dudley wrote for The Full Monty. It is present in almost every cue; in the opening “Jérôme le Tallec, Vendeur” and the conclusive “Un Costard Pour Jérôme” it has a sort of 1920s swing style, but also makes use of acoustic and electric guitars and muted trumpets. “Ballade du Porte-à-Porte” arranges the theme with a stylish groove, slower and more laid back, and with the addition of keyboards and contemporary percussion into the mix. Both “Colonel Demanet” and “Briefing Stratégie” perform the main theme in a much more aggressive manner, with layered guitars that pass a repetitive riff between electric and acoustic, backed by vibraphones and modern rock drum kit percussion. It’s interesting, emotionally, because it conveys Jérôme and Régis’s world as a sort of a light-hearted caper, when in fact there is some quite dark stuff going on.

Elsewhere, “Régis en Fanfare” is a superb cue that begins with a bank of lush strings – emotional, soft, languid, a little sad – but then emerges into an unexpectedly flamboyant Sousa-style patriotic march, full of pageantry and militaristic pride. Similarly, “Le Terrible Destin de Régis” begins with aggressive, pulsating string figures creating a dramatic Gothic atmosphere, but then the finale is a clear homage to the militaristic style of James Horner and John Williams – think of fife-and-drum writing from things like Glory and The Patriot.

Also running through the score are frequent acknowledgements to Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge on the River Kwai – smart snare drum cadences, militaristic volleys of trumpets, and so on, notably at the beginning of “Jérôme le Tallec, Vendeur,” and later in the aforementioned “Le Terrible Destin de Régis”. This relates to that that Régis bases his entire work ethic on the Nicholson character from that film (the one played by Alec Guinness), and also explains the album’s inclusion of the “Colonel Bogey March,” performed here with a salsa beat by the orchestra band leader Edmundo Ros.

As was often the case with albums from the period, the soundtrack also contains a number of dialogue extracts, as well as several songs: “La Gloire de Jérôme” is a guitar ballad performed by the gravel-voiced Jean-Marie Marié-d’Unienville singing only ‘no’ and ‘yeah,’ while “Comme On Jette Une Pierre” performed by Laurent de Gasperis is one of those overly-sincere and oh-so-dramatic romance songs of the type that France sent to the Eurovision Song Contest with alarming frequency throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Track Listing: 1. Jérôme le Tallec, Vendeur (2:30), 2. Première Vente [dialogue] (0:38), 3. Ballade du Porte-à-Porte (2:12), 4. Colonel Bogey (performed by Edmundo Ros) (2:51), 5. Régis en Fanfare (2:54), 6. Colonel Demanet [incl. dialogue] (3:25), 7. Comme On Jette Une Pierre (performed by Laurent de Gasperis) (2:27), 8. Comment a Pu-T-On en Arriver Là? [dialogue] (0:22), 9. Le Terrible Destin de Régis (2:44), 10. La Gloire de Jérôme (performed by Jean-Marie Marié-d’Unienville) (2:31), 11. Briefing Stratégie [incl. dialogue] (3:05), 12. Plein Spleen (3:57), 13. Un Costard Pour Jérôme – Final (1:42), 14. Fréquence Autoroute Medley [incl. dialogue] (performed by Laurent de Gasperis, Fred Payonne, and Roland d’Acétone) (2:38), 15. La Gloire de Jérome (Version 2) (performed by Jean-Marie Marié-d’Unienville) (4:07). Play Time Music FGLPL-210663, 38 minutes 03 seconds.

 

REINES D’UN JOUR (2001)

Reines d’Un Jour – A Hell of a Day – is a French comedy film directed by Marion Vernoux, and is Alexandre Desplat’s third collaboration with the director after Love Etc. in 1996 and Rien à Faire in 1999. It’s a ‘slice of life’ movie following the inter-connected amorous adventures of various people over the course of one day in Paris. The story focuses mostly on Hortense (Karin Viard), a married chiropractor juggling various responsibilities and who is desperately trying to get in contact with one of her several lovers while her husband is away on a business trip. Hortense’s brother Antoine (Philippe Harel) is recently married, but is having an affair with a beautiful girl named Marie (Hélène Fillières) who works behind the camera store counter where he is picking up his wedding photos. Luis (Sergi Lopez) is a bus driver whose wife is leaving him, and Jane (Jane Birkin) is an ageing widow looking back on her life with her late husband. It’s all very French, with its light-hearted looks at sex and infidelity, but it inspired Desplat to write a fun, bouncy, lightly romantic score.

The score is rooted very heavily in the music of the iconic French singer-songwriter and poet George Brassens, specifically his 1953 song “Le Vent”. Brassens blended French folk music with then-contemporary romantic ‘chansons’ stylistics, resulting in a uniquely Gallic style that is hard to describe but obvious to the listener. The melody of “Le Vent,” with its bouncy rhythms, acts as the recurring theme for Hortense and forms the core of the title piece “Reines d’Un Jour,” as well as three later cues “Si Par Hasard…,” “Le Photoshop,” and the “Si Par Hasard…” reprise. There are also two superb vocal performances of the song by vocalist Catherine Ringer, who offers an exotic interpretation of the lyrics and adds a Folies Bergère sauciness to her tone.

The rest of the music is all Desplat’s, and it’s built around three more original themes, each of which relate to a specific character. Marie’s Theme, for the seductive girl in the camera shop, appears in “Marie Court” and “D’Un Pont à l’Autre,” and initially has a fast-paced circus like vibe, with whirligig brass underpinned with snare drum riffs; later, its becomes slower, but more overtly comedic, with prominent clarinets. Luis’s Theme appears prominently in three cues – “Le Bubus de Luis,” “Boléro de Luis,” and “Pierre et Son Chien” – and is mostly a lithe and sinewy clarinet melody underpinned with comedic oompah tubas, accompanied by slightly old-fashioned and faded Latin rhythms, although the latter of these cues features more emotional and lush strings.

However, my favorite theme is the one for “Victor et Jane,” which charts the relationship of these characters through three decades from the 1970s to the 1990s. Desplat makes three arrangements of the same melody with time specific orchestrations: “Victor et Jane 70’s” has fun and frothy vibe and a melody led by a trumpet, and “Victor et Jane 80’s” uses high-pitched staccato strings and a chugging cello undercurrent that reminds me of Michael Nyman, while “Victor et Jane 90’s” pitches the melody in a dreamy, faraway fashion, and with a sense of distortion in the strings. The theme itself is lovely, one of Desplat’s best contemporary romance efforts. I also like the standalone cue “Rendez-Vous Manqué,” which is more understated, and features bittersweet strings and a vibraphone tinged with regret.

Reines d’Un Jour might be difficult for some people to get into, simply because its so rooted in Brassens’s unique musical style, which is itself so iconically French. It’s light and bouncy and might come across as being a little too idiosyncratic for its own good, but I like it a lot.

Track Listing: 1. Le Vent – Générique Début (written by George Brassens, performed by Catherine Ringer) (3:43), 2. Marie Court (1:35), 3. Le Bubus de Luis (3:14), 4. Victor et Jane 70’s (2:17), 5. Reines d’Un Jour (written by George Brassens) (2:24), 6. D’Un Pont à l’Autre (1:20), 7. Rendez-Vous Manqué (1:58), 8. Boléro de Luis (1:49), 9. Victor et Jane 80’s (1:32), 10. Le Bar Shermann (2:46), 11. Si Par Hasard… (written by George Brassens) (2:06), 12. Pierre et Son Chien (1:43), 13. Le Photoshop (2:35), 14. Victor et Jane 90’s (1:21), 15. Le Vent – Générique Fin (written by George Brassens, performed by Catherine Ringer) (3:44), 16. Get Yourself A Loukoum (performed by Grand Popo Football Club) (4:40), 17. One More Song On The Market (performed by Grand Popo Football Club) (4:13), 18. Si Par Hasard… Reprise (written by George Brassens) (2:06). Virgin France 8114322, 45 minutes 45 seconds.

 

SUR MES LÈVRES (2001)

Sur Mes Lèvres – Read My Lips – is romantic drama written and directed by Jacques Audiard. The film stars Emmanuelle Devos as Carla, a meek secretary at a construction company who is bullied by her co-workers who do not know she is deaf, and who reads lips in order communicate. Carla’s life changes when ex-con Paul (Vincent Cassel) is hired to be her assistant; Paul is a rough around the edges and has a dangerous streak to him, but the sexual attraction between the two of them is immediate, to their mutual surprise. Paul builds Carla’s confidence at work, and then comes to her with a proposal – wanting her to use her lip-reading skills to help him rob a nightclub owner. The film is the third collaboration between Audiard and Desplat after Regarde Les Hommes Tomber and Un Héros Très Discret, and earned the composer his second César Award nomination for Best Score.

The full soundtrack for Sur Mes Lèvres has never been released, but three cues from the score are available on the compilation album Alexandre Desplat-Jacques Audiard, which was released simultaneously, by Play Time Records in France and by Silva America elsewhere, in 2006. The cues are three separate ‘Movements’ running for just over 16½ minutes. The score is orchestral, built mostly around strings, and with special emphasis on solo performances by virtuoso violinist Gordan Nikolić. The first ‘Movement’ starts quite slowly, enigmatically, a mass of swirling strings, but it slowly rises to a wonderfully dark crescendo full of moody passion just after the 3:00 mark. More energetic textures, pizzicato and cello ostinato, appear in thereafter, and as the score moves into the second ‘Movement’ the music takes on a slightly more romantic aspect, with lighter chimes and soft brass adding a level of warmth and intimacy to the strings.

After three minutes or so the more energetic ostinatos return once more, adding a sense of danger and urgency to the score; brass whole notes and agitated string tremolos play up the nervousness, and as the ‘Movement’ reaches its climax the strings climb higher and higher, anticipating the danger to come as Carla and Paul risk everything to go through with their criminal plan. The final ‘Movement’ is mostly a return to the textures of the first cue, albeit with a sense of redemption via the subtle inclusion of gongs and cymbal rings under the slow, elegant strings. The final minute or so has a hint of a religioso quality to it, with the strings slowing down to perform elongated chords, and harmonizing beautifully in the conclusion.

It’s a shame that this full score has never been released, and that it isn’t better known outside France, because Sur Mes Lèvres is one of Desplat’s career-best romantic thriller scores, right up there with Innocent Lies, Inquiétudes, Birth, and The Ghost Writer. It’s absolutely worth picking up the Desplat-Audiard compilation for this score alone – and, best of all, you’ll also get music from Regarde Les Hommes Tomber, Un Héros Très Discret, and De Battre Mon Coeur s’est Arrête too!

Track Listing: 1. Movement I (6:01), 2. Movement II (7:28), 3. Movement III (3:06). Play Time/Silva America, 16 minutes 36 seconds.

 

NID DE GUÊPES [THE NEST] (2002)

Nid de Guêpes is a high-octane French action-thriller directed by Florent Emilio Siri, who would later work in America on films like Hostage. The film follows a group of small-time French gangsters who find themselves caught in the fight of their lives when they decide to rob a warehouse on Bastille Day. Unknown to them, an Albanian organized crime kingpin is being transported to his trial in an armored van by a team of French Special Forces; however, the van is attacked by the Albanian’s henchmen, and he escapes. The team of Special Forces takes refuge in the same warehouse that is being robbed – and then all hell breaks loose, when the Albanian’s men attack the warehouse, with the Special Forces inside, and the gangsters caught in the crossfire.

Nid de Guêpes is perhaps the ultimate rebuttal to the claim that Desplat can’t do action scores; it was never a valid criticism in the first place as he has written terrific action music intermittently throughout his career, but this score puts any lingering doubt to rest. It’s a magnificent orchestral score of the highest order that initially plays like a combination of religioso tragedy and 1970s Jerry Goldsmith suspense writing, but then frequently erupts into brilliantly-staged action. The most interesting thing about the score is the orchestration; Desplat uses the full ensemble throughout, but augments it with a great deal of writing for harps and multi-faceted voices which give the whole score a sense of inevitable sacred destiny. Not only that, the intricate interplay between different elements of the string section, and different elements of the brass, is fascinating on a technical level.

After a brief moment of orchestral-and-choral tension in the “Générique,” and a surprisingly good piece of French-language rap in “Nid de Guêpes” performed by Akhenaton with solemn orchestral arrangements by Desplat, the score begins in earnest with “Abedin Nexhep” (the name of the Albanian mafia boss at the center of the story). It sets the mood of the piece with dark string chords, low brasses, harp glissandi, and haunting choral ideas that speak of impending doom. The subsequent “Thème de l’Amitié” is low-key but emotional, a bank of lush strings that illustrate the bonds of friendship between the gang.

“La Sortie” offers the blueprint for much of the rest of the score, and is an orchestral action and suspense cue anchored by a phalanx of rampaging pianos, overlaid with darting strings, incessant snare drum riffs, and voices which range from ghostly to deathly. Some of the music is quite abstract and dissonant in its second half, and some of the textures remind me a little of his subsequent Harry Potter scores, with their overarching sense of oppression. Numerous subsequent cues build on these ideas, and feature many of the same ideas in the orchestration and approach, but there are also several moments of uniqueness worth noting. For example, “L’Accident” features a number revelatory crescendos in its second half, as well as some notably eerie writing for voices and woodwinds that encroaches into light horror territory. Later, “L’Entrepôt” makes excellent use of mysterious woodwinds, while “La Nuit Tombe” offers some echoes of the Amitié theme augmented by collapsing string chords and more prominent choral ideas.

However, by far the most impressive moments of the score are the ones where Desplat engages in pure action. The first 90 seconds of “Djarkmara!” are awash in surging strings and dark brass chords, which grow more dissonant as the cue progresses. “Sur le Toit” will appeal to James Horner fans for the way it incorporates rampaging piano runs into its chaotic bed of sound, a mass of brass clusters, swirling strings, and forward motion. Similarly, “Les Lacrymogènes” explodes with tumultuous energy, a heady combination of throbbing strings, whooping brass, and dark choral outbursts, punctuated by brief moments of thematic consonance.

The main action set-piece begins with “Avant l’Attaque,” a nail-biting suspense sequence pitched at high registers for maximum effect. Once the action kicks in it doesn’t let up; “Le Mur des Containers” features a fascinating string figure for doubles basses that gradually picks up throbbing cellos, then chattering violins, which gradually melt away to leave only the brass section playing the original cello motif. It’s superb, threatening and aggressive, and leads into the brilliant “Les Bulldozers.” This is the action highlight of the score, a vibrant blend of fast-paced high string runs and whooping brass calls, underpinned with relentless cello chords. Woodwinds and chorus provide color, and then a lonely motif for echoing trumpets and horns leads into the quasi-religioso finale, which has hints of the Amitié theme. What I like about this action writing is that it doesn’t just bombard you with noise; it’s intricate, cleverly structured, and you can hear everything that’s going on. The interplay between the instruments, the changes in pace and rhythm, the subtle emotional textures – it’s all just brilliant.

The finale of the score comprises two back-to-back statements of the Amitié theme, the aftermath of the all-out fight between the thieves, the Special Forces, and Nexhep’s men. The first, “Les Survivants,” is unfortunately completely ruined by all the sound effects (helicopters, sirens) and dialogue, but “the conclusive “Final” is superb, an extended statement of the Amitié theme for elegant strings. The track has a terrifying finale, however, as Abedin Nexhep himself informs listeners that they are ‘all gonna die,’ in what might be the darkest ending to a soundtrack album ever!

Nid de Guêpes is one of Desplat’s career best scores, a masterful exercise in tension building and emotional investment, capped off with explosions of terrific action. Just get it. You’ll thank me.

Track Listing: 1. Générique (0:28), 2. Nid de Guêpes (performed by Akenathon) (4:57), 3. Abedin Nexhep (2:48), 4. Thème de l’Amitié (4:00), 5. La Sortie (2:55), 6. L’Accident (4:04), 7. Djarkmara! (3:28), 8. Sur le Toit (1:46), 9. L’Entrepôt (2:18), 10. Les Lacrymogènes (1:19), 11. La Nuit Tombe (4:15), 12. Sans Retour (1:11), 13. Avant l’Attaque (1:07), 14. Le Mur des Containers (1:40), 15. Les Bulldozers (4:05), 16. Le Soleil Mon Frère (0:49), 17. Le Sous-sol (2:04), 18. Les Survivants (4:09), 19. Final (5:48). Delabel/Cinemane/Carrere 724381223024, 53 minutes 09 seconds.

  1. Marshall Harvey
    May 26, 2020 at 12:01 pm

    These are all great articles, Jon! Desplat’s early scores are some of my favorites.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.