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THE FRENCH DISPATCH – Alexandre Desplat

November 9, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The French Dispatch is the latest film from writer-director Wes Anderson. Like most of his films, it’s a highly stylized comedy caper, with a cast drawn mostly from his regular ensemble of players, including the likes of Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Elisabeth Moss, Anjelica Huston, Henry Winkler, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, and Saoirse Ronan. Its plot follows several different storylines as the French foreign bureau of the fictional ‘Liberty-Kansas Evening Sun’ newspaper creates its final issue following the death of its editor. Much of the action takes place in a town literally named Ennui, and involves such things as the life of an artist in the local prison, a sexual liaison between a reporter and a subject during a student revolution, and kidnappings and murders during a private dinner, all of which are narrated by a man on a bicycle who charts the history of the town.

Long-time readers of this site will know that, with the exception of parts of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and parts of Isle of Dogs, I find Wes Anderson’s films to be insufferable. While I absolutely appreciate the fact that he is a director who has established a highly personal and idiosyncratic style, which is not easy to do in modern cinema, I nevertheless find all his affectations and visual foibles to be unbearably annoying; his obsession with symmetry, his use of pastel colors, his highly specific camera movements, the unnatural way people talk and interact with each other. It’s all so precious, so twee, so obnoxiously affected; it feels like he’s trying to enshrine himself as the King of All Hipsters. And I don’t even find him funny. Despite this he has been a critical darling for more than twenty years, but with The French Dispatch it seems much of the response for the first time mirrors mine: one critic said “if you forced a bot to watch 1000 hours of Anderson’s films and then asked it to write a movie on its own, The French Dispatch would be the result,” which might very well be my personal cinematic nightmare.

The score for The French Dispatch is by Alexandre Desplat, who has scored all of Anderson’s films since he took over from Mark Mothersbaugh following The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004, and who of course won an Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014. It’s been an odd year for Desplat; he was supposed to score the superhero action movie Black Widow, but dropped out and was replaced by Lorne Balfe, and then he was supposed to score the upcoming noir thriller Nightmare Alley for Guillermo del Toro, but dropped out and was replaced by Nathan Johnson. This means that The French Dispatch is the only English-language film Desplat has scored in 2021, although he did score a French language biopic about the famed architect Gustave Eiffel back in September.

Historically, Desplat’s scores for Wes Anderson’s movies have been the one element of them I enjoyed; I gave mostly positive reviews to Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009, Moonrise Kingdom in 2012, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Isle of Dogs in 2018. However, as The French Dispatch has gone so far out in trying to out-Wes Anderson itself, the score is the first Desplat Anderson score I don’t like. In fact, I didn’t just ‘not like’ it – it actively irritated me to the point where I wanted to switch it off.

The soundtrack for the film is the usual Anderson mix of original score, pre-existing score from earlier films, classical music, and songs. Desplat’s score on album comprises 14 cues running for just over 30 minutes and, on the surface, it seems like something worth exploring. Desplat scored the film for a wildly eclectic assortment of instruments and soloists, one of whom is the acclaimed French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, whose delicate performances were paired in unusual duets with harps, timpani, bassoons, tubas, and more. Stylistically, Desplat says he drew from a wide range of musical influences, including the minimalist piano specialist Erik Satie and the jazz composer Thelonious Monk. Even the opening cue, “Obituary,” is generally delightful, a bouncy and slightly pompous melody for a prancing harpsichord coupled with tubas, pianos, plucked strings and harps, and dancing woodwinds. It has a sort of renaissance flavor, Bach’s Air on the G String filtered through Desplat’s delicate orchestrations. The precision and clarity of the sound allows every whimsical tinkle, every fanciful detail, to be experienced in full, and overall the sound is just charming. But then it all quickly goes downhill.

The rest of the score can be split more or less evenly into two halves: jazzy piano writing, and irritating rhythmic frolicking. The first four piano pieces, comprising “Simone, Naked, Cell Block-J Hobby Room,” “Moses Rosenthaler,” “Mouthwash de Menthe,” and “Cadazio Uncles and Nephew Gallery,” showcase the languid, vaguely jazzy performances of Thibaudet and, to give them credit, he performs them with wit and panache, but my issue is the fact that they just feel detached, like self-contained standalones rather than elements of a larger work. Desplat occasionally adds a secondary element to specific cues – dreamy tropical guitar strums in “Simone, Naked, Cell Block-J Hobby Room,” lumpy sounding percussion and harp glissandi in “Mouthwash de Menthe” – but they can’t disguise the oddness of the actual central piano line, and the strange stagnancy of the rhythms. Worst of all is the fact that the actual melodies feel, to me, rather dull; there isn’t a whole lot of obvious sophistication in what’s actually being performed, which is mostly simple repetitive chords on one hand, and tinkling improvisations on the other. I understand that this is the Erik Satie influence coming through but, honestly, this is probably why I never liked any of the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes.

“The Berensen Lectures at the Clampette Collection” is sort of a linking cue between what came before it and what came after it, wherein the more lyrical pianos are accompanied by rhythmic woodwinds structured like a march, along with more prominent percussion, notably brushed snares. Unfortunately, what comes after it are a series of seven cues all based around possibly the most irritating rhythmic device of Desplat’s entire career. Desplat has used similarly perky, bouncy beats before, especially in scores like Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, but never has he really built an entire score around it. This is what The French Dispatch does; it’s the same repetitive rum-te-tum-te-tum for basically 15 minutes, over and over and over and over. Desplat hangs a ton of other instrumental textures on to it – mandolins, banjos, a slapped bass, rapped snares, clarinets, tubas, you name it – as well as those tinkling metallic percussion ideas, and more of Thibaudet’s piano performances, but honestly the more adornments he added to the central rhythm, the more irksome I found it to be. I understand that this is the quirky sound that is quintessential Wes Anderson, but this really is peak Wes Anderson, like he asked Desplat to out-eccentric himself at every opportunity.

There are a few moments where the music is interesting; for example, the second half of “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” eventually adopts a fascinating frantic circular woodwind idea, accompanied by descending piano scales, boom-tish percussion, and tinkling banjos, all of which becomes quite bold and robust in the finale. Later, “Kidnappers Lair” brings in a guitar and a funky little riff for clarinets accompanied by heavy timpani hits, and “A Multi-Pronged Battle Plan” makes the slapped bass more prominent and pairs it with a throaty jazz trumpet, while “Animated Car Chase” presents all the same ideas but at a faster and more rambunctious pace, and with some Morricone-esque trilling flutes at the very end. The conclusive “Lt. Nescaffier (Seeking Something Missing…)” returns mostly to the slow piano style of the earlier cues, focusing on a hypnotic 5-note motif accompanied by faraway woodwind textures.

The three pieces from pre-existing films are “Inseguimento al Taxi” from the 1960 film The Scent of Mystery by Mario Nascimbene, which blends sultry, slinky jazz sounds – including a fabulous main saxophone – with car horns and honks; the brilliant bossa nova twist piece “L’Ultima Volta” from the 1964 film I Malamondo by Ennio Morricone, which is replete with wordless vocals, lush strings, and effortless engaging pop beats; and the “Adagio” from the 1971 film Compte á Rebours by Georges Delerue, which again seems to be inspired by Bach and is anchored by a gorgeous romantic violin melody.

There’s also a superb performance of the ‘Adagio’ from Mozart’s Sonata for Mandolin and Guitar performed by the German contemporary classical guitarist Boris Björn Bagger and his countryman, mandolin virtuoso Detlef Tewes, and a version of Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier performed by the jazz harmony vocal group The Swingle Singers. There are also songs, including Grace Jones’s variation on Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Libertango’ in “I’ve Seen That Face Before,” a new version of Christophe’s 1960s ballad “Aline” by Jarvis Cocker singing in French, and cuts by Chantal Goya and Charles Aznavour to add even more Gallic flair to the proceedings.

But, really, when it comes to finding positive things to say about the score, I’m really clutching at straws here, because for the most part it’s all just very repetitive and annoyingly cutesy. This is the first time in a long time that I have had a predominantly negative reaction to anything that Alexandre Desplat has written and, really, it’s all down to the lack of diversity in style and approach. The opening “Obituary” cue is the highlight of the album, the first Thibaudet piano solo is interesting, and then the first bouncy rhythmic piece (“Police Cooking”) is good, but then you get the second, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth variation on the same thing, and by that point I just wanted it to stop. The whole thing is an overload of whimsy, a landslide of musical hipsterism that buries you in a pile of twee from which there is no escape – and this is, in a very precise and intricate nutshell, how I feel about Wes Anderson’s oeuvre as a whole.

Buy the French Dispatch soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Obituary (3:31)
  • After You’ve Gone (written by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton, performed by Gene Austin with Candy and Coco) (1:08)
  • Simone, Naked, Cell Block-J Hobby Room (2:55)
  • Fiasco (written and performed by Gus Viseur) (2:59)
  • Moses Rosenthaler (2:30)
  • I’ve Seen That Face Before – Libertango (written by Astor Piazzolla, Grace Jones, Barry Reynolds, Dennis Wilkey, and Nathalie Delon, performed by Grace Jones) (4:31)
  • Mouthwash de Menthe (1:57)
  • Sonata for Mandolin and Guitar A-Dur, K. 331 Andante Grazioso con Variation VI. Variation 5 – Adagio (written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by Boris Björn Bagger and Detlef Tewes) (3:35)
  • Cadazio Uncles and Nephew Gallery (1:57)
  • Inseguimento al Taxi [The Chase] from The Scent of Mystery (written by Mario Nascimbene) (2:41)
  • The Berensen Lectures at the Clampette Collection (1:52)
  • L’Ultima Volta from I Malamondo (written by Ennio Morricone) (2:35)
  • Tu m’as trop menti (written by Jean-Jacques Debout, performed by Chantal Goya) (1:48)
  • J’en déduis que je t’aime (written and performed by Charles Aznavour) (3:06)
  • Fugue No.2 in C Minor, ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, BWV 871(written by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by The Swingle Singers) (1:20)
  • Adagio from Compte á Rebours (written by Georges Delerue) (3:14)
  • Police Cooking (1:50)
  • The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner (5:11)
  • Kidnappers Lair (2:02)
  • A Multi-Pronged Battle Plan (1:38)
  • Blackbird Pie (0:54)
  • Commandos, Guerillas, Snipers, Climbers and the Jeroboam (0:53)
  • Animated Car Chase (1:53)
  • Lt. Nescaffier (Seeking Something Missing…) (1:57)
  • Aline (written by Daniel Bevilacqua, performed by Jarvis Cocker) (3:33)

Running Time: 61 minutes 14 seconds

ABKCO Music (2021)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope. Featured musical soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Recorded and mixed by Robin Baynton. Edited by Fiona Cruickshank. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat, Wes Anderson and Randall Poster.

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