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Alexandre Desplat’s Psychological Landscapes

Alexandre Desplat’s Psychological Landscapes


A soundtrack that has Chinese overtones, interspersed with Satie, and A La Claire Fontaine. Is it a Chinese composer familiar with French culture? Turns out to be a French composer, capable of adapting his music to almost any setting in the world. Whether it be ethereal tunes for golden compasses, mysterious ones for wizards, or spectral ones for writers on the verge of giving up the ghost.

In a TV reality show about composers, Alexandre le Grand would be the winner of his era. Even if composers tend to be discreet, their work lives in a fish bowl. And M. Desplat’s bowl is filling up with scores of many scents and colours very rapidly.

Not just that, he does it consistently well, under lots of pressure, running against the clock on at least two continents, having composed the music for 115 feature films at the age of 51. Not counting the work done for TV, the theatre, concerts etc. Besides French and English, he’s even composed for Italian and Spanish films.

For most artists, having enough time for their creations to simmer seems to be crucial to the creative process. M. Desplat’s compositions seem to have the least amount of time for incubating. However, his tunes can lift their heads proudly, and march alongside the top-notch movie albums of the year to awards glory.

It’s rare for a composer to have six very different films nominated at the same time. Argo has won the Satellite Award, besides being nominated for the Academy Awards, Golden Globes Awards, Chicago Film Critics Association, as well as the Critics’ Choice Award. The soundtrack of Rise of the Guardians has been nominated for the Annie Awards. Furthermore, the International Online Film Critics Poll has selected The King’s Speech for its bi-annual awards nominations, and the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Critics’ Choice Award and the WAFCA have Moonrise Kingdom on their nominations list. The score of Zero Dark Thirty is also a Chicago Film Critics Association Nominee. London Critics’ Circle Film Awards have nominated the score of Rust and Bone for The Sky 3D: Technical Achievement Award.

Besides the astounding prolificacy, of note is the uncompromisingly high quality of his intelligent, alternative take to genres, and his vast range that covers not just Occidental music, but extends to other cultures too.

With so many offers coming in, he can pick and choose. But is time constraint the only factor? Not only do the story, or the visual images have to appeal to him, but so do the actors. Perhaps he is one of the rare composers who has refused to do films, because he didn’t want to look constantly at certain faces for three months. For his compositions are so finely attuned to the mood or vibration of the film, that they are affected by the timbre of the voice of the main actors. From fantasy, to the nitty gritty of political dramas, to art house films, he has helped to immerse audiences in various universes. As have most of the major film composers.

What makes Alexandre Desplat’s writing so distinctive, that Hollywood directors seem to be tripping over the lesser known ones in their eagerness to sign him on?

Is it the fact that he seems to slip into their world so effortlessly, and expands it with his notes? Is it the clean tones on which even the most complex of his scores flow, with micro seconds between the lines helping to make the tune clearer? Is it the inherent control that emerges, even when he is delineating emotions that cannot be described? Many parts of the human psyche cannot be vocalized, simply felt, and his music takes one there, so that audiences can recognize, at least unconsciously, certain parts of their own psyche. So they can empathize with the characters or the story at an even deeper level.

If his tunes were to be given a personage, it could be that of a well brought up boy, who has the good intention of sticking to the straight and narrow, (perhaps on his way to school). He doesn’t want to disturb anyone with his rhythmic steps, that advance cautiously enough. For example, in “L’abandon” from Coco Avant Chanel or in “Falling Rain” from Lust, Caution, the schoolboy just about manages to stay on his path. Apart from little explorations, and varied pacing, the school boy arrives to the desired end in “The Wonder Of Life” from Et Après (Afterwards), with pleasing results.

In “Nothing Lasts”. from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, though the theme is complex, yet the various instruments and rhythm intertwine neatly, so he can still breathe.

Yet, sooner or later forces welling up from inside overwhelm the polite schoolboy, sweeping him off to a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Still, he doesn’t lose his cadenced progression, despite the tidal waves, learning many lessons in the process. It is this restraint, and discipline that make the schoolboy’s journey unpredictable, with lots of amazing revelations. He may end up in a new place, yet it turns out to be surprisingly appropriate, after everything he´s imbibed in his tumultuous rites of passage. Like the process of creativity itself.

Alexandre Desplat’s music tends to add depth to the inner landscape of the characters, to express what cannot be vocalized. His scores capture the inner conflict or the outer tension quite well, making them even richer so they tell the real story behind the facade that people tend to fabricate.

Griet’s Theme from The Girl with a Pearl Earring reflects the implacable flow of water in the canals of Delft, like time itself. Then there is the burgeoning youthful passion of Griet. Along with a certain regret, a hint of nostalgia. Though she is beautiful enough, Griet will never be a grand lady, will never own any pearl earrings, will never live up to her full potential. All she has are these beautiful moments stringed together, glistening with her unshed tears, an echo of the pearls that will hang forever from her ears, like her theme that will continue to echo in the listeners’ ears.

The repetition in “River Waltz” from The Painted Veil takes one up a spiral. One is moving forward, yet looking backwards. The landscape may be beautiful, but there is a sense of pain, of loss. Still, an implacable force pulls one higher, and further away. Kitty’s emotions, as well as her husband’s determination, and its effect on her are very well encapsulated in this piece. As one goes up, the same place is seen from a higher perspective. The higher one goes, the wider the scope of the melody. At the end, there is a sense of giddiness, a loss of control building up to a crescendo, as Kitty loses control in more ways than one.

Wong Chia Chi’s Theme in Lust, Caution, opens strongly, but then one theme dominates (of their passion), with other themes overlapping discreetly (of the resistance), giving depth, but letting the main theme play its role of taking the listener through their story where tragic overtones (of doomed love) are interspersed with sweet nostalgia, (regret they didn’t meet in better circumstances) of a Chinese flavour, with small lotuses (of true love) blooming at the very end. The End of Innocence picks up some of the elements of the Wong Chia Chi’s Theme, and takes it deeper into sorrow and the impending tragedy.

In “Missing Home” in Argo, one gets a sense of the nostalgia of the six, with half-forgotten dreams of childhood, then a sudden surge of energy, reflecting the desire to flee, then it’s back to quiet moments encapsulated in their safe haven, with time passing imperceptibly by.

In “Breaking Through The Gates”, while his notes captures the anger, it is as disciplined as the crowds were, with various instruments outlining the different elements.

Like a glass-blower, M. Desplat’s compositions expand the universe of the film even more. But only when it’s appropriate. In his case, less is certainly more. Sometimes, he does the opposite of what is expected. For example, in Argo, the movie album is unconventional in the sense that it doesn’t sweep the action with broad arcs, but with fine brush strokes dipped in tragedy, helping the audience to become aware of the nuances of the two cultures caught in the web of history. The score doesn’t celebrate grandiosely whenever the Americans have a breakthrough, but seems to be respectful to a degree of the undercurrent of human tribulations unfolding in Iran which caused these events to happen in the first place.

At times the music seems to be in keeping with the perpetually mournful expression on the face of the protagonist.

In the bits where the melodies of both Argo and Syriana have a Middle Eastern flavour, it sounds authentic, and not like a European composer playing around at seeming to be vaguely oriental. Very few composers can make their compositions sound as if they were coming from inside a foreign culture. Also, since these films deal with serious subjects, and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, his tunes underlie the action, adding solemnity to the atmosphere. Or highlighting the sense of dread felt by the Americans in Argo. It may not require a grand sweeping orchestral score, but Sussan Deyhim’s voice and the use of Middle Eastern instruments, such as neys, ouds etc. highlight the timeless quality of these ancient cultures.

Sometimes, his themes lead the audience to focus on certain aspects that audiences might have overlooked otherwise. His album serves to bring Cheri to life, and was more appreciated than the film itself.

It may not have been intentional, but the vocals in his track, entitled “Child’s Spirit” in Hostage, are slightly reminiscent of Lata Mangeshkar (the Indian playback singer). Though, it was sung beautifully by the composer´s daughter.

Speaking of childhood dreams or the lack thereof, the soundtrack of Rise of the Guardians seems to indicate a roller-coaster ride of the ups and downs of both the characters and their voyage. The Desplat touch can be found in the “Oath of the Guardians”, which is serious, and reflective at times, yet quite lively in places. “Moon Reveals Jack has a sense of mystery with surprises embedded in the tune. “Seduction / Breaking Staff” is quite intriguing. In “Jack’s Memory” the effect is soft, yet doesn’t overwhelm with its complexity, as the melody takes us deeper into his memories.

“Dreamsand to Nightmares” is unusual: powerful yet scary, like a bad monster with a good heart. “You Were Chosen” has an interesting take on the beat and instruments. “Busy Workshop” has a varied pace and orchestration making for delightful discoveries.

“Spartacus” has a layered and complex theme with surprising lulls and changes in pace. “Dreams and Miracles” sounds whimsical, and nostalgic before soaring up. Kids are in for enchanting musical surprises. For adults, it’s refreshingly unconventional for an animation score. When not happily exploring alternative approaches, it ups the tone on beauty, instead of sounding downbeat or morose in sad or frightening scenes.

Judging from the different sound of tracks done for films in his native country, such as A Self-Made Hero, and Rust and Bone, where being different is encouraged, and one is freer to experiment, it seems that it is the films of his French buddies such as Jacques Audiard or Gilles Bourdos who keep M. Desplat on his toes.

His creations reflect the composer in the sense that they are elegant, refined and discreet. In his interviews, he tends to comes across as a modest person, more into his art, than the hubbub of Hollywood politics.

A quiet approach, with the music singing for itself, leaves the audience wanting more. For his compositions tend to strengthen the films, or expands them multi-dimensionally.

Perhaps it´s not surprising that Alexandre Despalt seems to be interested in psychology, as in real life, he is the 2012 sponsor of Association Puissance Dys (which helps dyslexics), and has even composed for A Therapy (albeit in fun).

How could anyone deliver such high quality scores under so much pressure, if they didn´t have a vast knowledge of genres, specially world music, an indefinable talent, combined with a love and enjoyment of music in most of its aspects, not to mention sensitive eyes and ears?

-© 2012. Sultana Raza