Home > Reviews > DIÊN BIÊN PHÚ – Georges Delerue

DIÊN BIÊN PHÚ – Georges Delerue


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The city of Diên Biên Phú is located in the north-west of Vietnam, and was the site of the decisive battle of the First Indochina War in 1954. The conflict climaxed with 55 days of intense combat in which the French colonial army fought against local Vietnamese forces for the fate of the region. It was a terrible and bloody battle, with thousands killed as a result of anti-aircraft batteries, tank warfare, and ground assaults; the eventual result was a humiliating loss for the French, and victory for the Chinese and Russian-backed Viet Minh communist revolutionaries. In the immediate aftermath of the battle the Geneva Accords were signed, ending the war; France withdrew all its forces from its regional colonies in French Indochina, and the independent countries of North Vietnam and South Vietnam were created, although that would not be the end of the conflict, as less than a year later in 1955 the two sides then began battling each other for control of the entire country. The resulting Second Indochina War – known in the United States as the Vietnam War – would then rage on for twenty more years.

The film Diên Biên Phú was written and directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer and follows the chronological events of the battle from various points of view – the French and Vietnamese forces on the ground, foreign journalists in Hanoi, and more. It stars Donald Pleasence, Patrick Catalifo, and Jean-François Balmer in the main roles. Schoendoerffer himself was present at Diên Biên Phú, and was injured in a minor skirmish before the main battle began, before eventually returning and shooting camera footage in the moment; much of the film re-creates that footage, most of which was confiscated and destroyed by the Viet Minh after Schoendoerffer was captured by Vietnamese forces and spent time as a prisoner of war. With its huge budget, major cast, and realistic war scenes, Diên Biên Phú is now regarded as one of the most important war movies in French cinema history.

As one of the most prestigious films released in France in 1992, its score was written by one of French cinema’s most prestigious composers: Georges Delerue. It’s interesting that Delerue would be asked to score this film, because Delerue had previously scored director Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film Platoon in 1987, only to see much of it rejected in favor of original classical music, most notably American composer Samuel Barber’s famous ‘Adagio for Strings’. There is actually a lot of tonal similarity between the scores for Platoon and Diên Biên Phú, in that both scores intentionally comment on the horrors of war by juxtaposing them against sensationally beautiful orchestral music. This is a common and well-established cinematic trope, but Delerue’s exceptional skill at capturing the human tragedy at the heart of all wars is what makes scores like Diên Biên Phú so compelling.

The heart of the score is the 9-minute “Concerto de l’Adieu” – the Concerto of Goodbye – which is essentially a classical piece for a symphony orchestra. It is, in a word, sensational. Over the course of his career Delerue wrote some staggeringly beautiful pieces of music, too many to mention here, but “Concerto de l’Adieu” is close to being a masterpiece. It’s essentially an adagio requiem to the entire concept of the First Indochina War – the men and women on both sides of the conflict who died as a result, France’s loss of both status and political influence in the region, the end of the colonial era that inspired genuine beauty and art despite its less-than-altruistic origins, and a mourning for the country of Vietnam itself: it was essentially torn apart by conflicting forces both within and without over several decades, from 1946 to 1975, and it took decades more for it to recover.

The Concerto is heavy and powerful and is filled with great dramatic string chords, rolling brass counterpoint, occasional woodwind accents, intense volleys of percussion, and writing for solo violin and solo cello of such exquisite tenderness and emotion that it makes your heart break. There are three or four recurring themes that weave through the piece, and each one is almost unbelievably moving; they occupy a space in which they play off each other constantly, shifting the focus from one to the other until they eventually just blend together in a cascade of dramatic portent, and sweeping, almost romantic grandeur. I’ve written variations on this sentence before about some of his other scores, but never has it been more apt than it is here: Georges Delerue wrote monumentally beautiful music, and it seemed to come as easy to him as breathing. There is a depth of emotion that just overflows from his scores, and the “Concerto de l’Adieu” from Diên Biên Phú is one of the best things he ever wrote.

The following piece, “Fragments du Concerto de l’Adieu,” comprises ten variations and adaptations of the thematic content from the concerto, expanded to just over 18 minutes. My understanding is that these are the actual score pieces that appeared in the film as cues, blended together as a single suite, as opposed to the Concerto itself, which is a standalone classical overture. It’s basically 18 minutes of the exact same music in a different order, and of course it’s just as magnificent.

The rest of the album comprises a series of short piano and organ pieces performed by Delerue himself, which are heard as source music in the film. They are very different in tone from the main score, and tend to be jazzier, lighter, and more playful, the sort of things you may hear emanating from a lounge bar, a jazz club, from the officer’s mess, or at a French dance hall. “Nostalgie” and “Valse Souvenir” are very pretty, if perhaps a little melancholy, while “Confidence au Normandie” has a warm sentimentality that I find very appealing. The two exceptions to this are “Communion,” which is a short piece of reverential organ liturgy featuring a vocal performance by Japanese soprano Marie Kobayashi, and “Sortie de la Messe,” which sounds like a variation on Wagner’s famous wedding march.

Georges Delerue died on 20 March 1992, just sixteen days after Diên Biên Phú premiered in France, and in many ways you can look at it as being an encapsulation of Delerue’s entire film music career coming full circle. He played piano in jazz bars near the Paris Opera to supplement his income while studying at the Conservatoire in the late 1940s, and his earliest scores for French New Wave directors such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alain Resnais often featured intimate piano writing similar to that heard here. Then, when you consider the dramatic depth and gut-wrenching emotional power and beauty of the “Concerto de l’Adieu,” you can see it as a reflection of his most well-loved symphonic works, especially the ones he wrote during the last 10-15 years of his life. With that in mind, I personally consider Diên Biên Phú to be an essential Delerue score, the final poignant coda of his illustrious career.

Buy the Diên Biên Phú soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Concerto de l’Adieu (9:50)
  • Fragments du Concerto de l’Adieu (18:16)
  • Communion (0:40)
  • Sortie de la Messe (0:54)
  • Nostalgie (1:28)
  • Valse Souvenir (1:40)
  • Les Copains (1:50)
  • Normandie Bar (2:35)
  • Confidence au Normandie (0:54)
  • Les Adieux au Normandie (1:55)

Running Time: 40 minutes 36 seconds

Polydor 513-289-2 (1992)

Music composed and conducted by Georges Delerue. Orchestrations by Georges Delerue. Piano solos performed by Georges Delerue. Special vocal performances by Marie Kobayashi. Recorded and mixed by William Flageollet. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by Georges Delerue.

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