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Prolifically Impressive – The Music of Alexandre Desplat

Prolifically Impressive – The Music of Alexandre Desplat

After more than a decade scoring films in Hollywood and beyond, most people have probably heard French composer Alexandre Desplat’s work. He might not be a household name, but his versatility and chameleon like ability to subsume distinctive quirks into the requirements of the film have made him an ever-present fixture on both the blockbuster and art-house scene. He’s just as likely to be underpinning key big budget action sequences as he is intimate moments of emotional realisation.

A growing sign that Desplat has risen to the front ranks of film composers comes with the Barbican’s decision to put on a night of his music in December, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the man himself. It’s recognition that he’s managed to transcend his art and is worthy of attention on his own merits; although the collection of awards, not to mention six Oscar nominations (for The Queen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The King’s Speech, Argo and Philomena), and an invitation to chair the Venice Film Festival jury this year suggests he’s not lacking in admirers.

But with such a varied career already, and a seemingly endless array of new films on the horizon, just what is it that makes Desplat worthy of special attention, and where should you start when there’s so many films to choose from? To range across his back catalogue more freely, his career can be split into five categories; distinct in their own right, though by no means mutually exclusive:

Desplat Outside Hollywood

Best known to English audiences for his mainstream work in Hollywood, Desplat started out scoring films in France and has kept up a steady stream of non-English language work since. He’s travelled continents with Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007), tackled the peaks of French fashion with Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel (2009) and most prominently of all has worked with acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard on all of his feature films.

It’s his work with Audiard that has provided some of the best music of Desplat’s career. They first teamed up on Audiard’s 1994 debut See How They Fall and have worked together since including on the multi-award winning A Prophet in 2009 and equally highly regarded Rust and Bone in 2012. But it’s their first collaboration together on The Beat That My Heart Skipped from 2005 that really marks the relationship. The travails of Roman Duris’ piano player/shady real estate broker are all the more heart-wrenching with the suite Desplat provides. Split up and used throughout the film, it accompanies the story perfectly while also playing through as an impressive whole.

Period Drama Desplat

Although he began scoring films in his native France, the breakthrough that opened him up to English language cinema came with his 2003 Golden Globe nominated score for Girl with a Pearl Earring. He’s wandered off in numerous directions since but period drama seems to hold a special place in his heart. Peter Webber’s occasionally dry film depicting the creation of Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting achieves a new level of impact thanks to Desplat’s haunting score. The title theme alone is worth the admission price. If that remains his quintessential period score, subsequent efforts have demonstrated a remarkable ease at adjusting to the rhythms of the past.

That ease has translated to substantial success in recent years. The King’s Speech (2010) walked away with Best Picture amongst other awards at the 2011 Oscars, though not sadly one for Desplat who had to settle for what was then his fourth Nomination (although he did win a Grammy and Bafta). He’s also scored the likes of David Fincher’s backwards aging The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), China set drama The Painted Veil (2006) and recent Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game (2014). A glance at his upcoming work suggests he’s not yet done with the past either.

Desplat in Contemporary Politics 

Just because he’s so good at scoring the past, don’t think he can’t master the present. Another strand running strongly through his career is the propensity to hire Desplat for political films. Several of these have covered British politics; including the Peter Morgan scripted The Queen (2006) and The Special Relationship (2010), alongside Polanski’s adaptation of the thinly veiled attack on Tony Blair, The Ghost (2010).

He’s achieved similar success the other side of the Atlantic with complex political thriller Syriana (2005), Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty (2012) tracing the efforts to catch Bin Laden, and Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage siege drama Argo (2012), another Best Picture winner that beat out stiff competition for the award including Bigelow’s film.

In a crowded field of high quality political drama, it would be easy to overlook George Clooney’s 2011 The Ides of March, the film that exemplifies his work here. Wallowing in dark hearted cynicism, Desplat keeps his score to a minimum, only coming in to light up moments of indecision and confusion as Ryan Gosling’s aide plunges ever deeper away from his ideals. Where others might bombard the audience he knows a little goes a long way.

Frequent Collaborator Desplat

Repeated work with the likes of Jacques Audiard is not an anomaly on Desplat’s CV. He’s found himself returning with the same filmmakers time and again. On top of Audiard, he’s also worked on three films with Roman Polanski; The Ghost, Carnage (2011) and Venus in Fur (2013): three with Stephen Frears; the wonderful Philomena (2013), The Queen and Tamara Drewe (2010), and several George Clooney efforts from acting (Syriana) to directing (The Ides of March and The Monuments Men – 2014) and producing (Argo).

Impressive as this is, Desplat’s best collaboration, and arguably his best work, has been done with American indie star Wes Anderson. He’s scored Anderson’s last three features including this year’s sublime The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), but it’s his score for Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) that stands above the rest. Capturing the jaunty and offbeat style that comes from a Wes Anderson/Roald Dahl mash-up, he has incidental music to bridge the gaps and moments of genius to hit the comic highlights. “Boggis, Bunce and Bean” in particular is simply a delight, and quite possibly the peak of his career to date.

Blockbuster Desplat

And then when you’ve listened to him scoring indie darlings, he switches to the other end of the scale providing music for some of the biggest blockbusters of recent times. It’s true that The Golden Compass (2007) hardly lit up the box office, not that Desplat’s score can be blamed for this, but Harry Potter certainly did as he came on board for the final two films (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, 2010 and Part 2, 2011). He also took the musical reins for the second Twilight film (New Moon, 2009) for his sins, and perhaps wisely took no further part in the series.

His biggest blockbuster challenge came earlier this year when he came on-board to score Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014). Managing to capture the dramatic destruction that follows a giant alpha predator without sacrificing the intimate moments, Desplat added an extra layer to a strong summer offering, and proved again that his ability to reshape music to different environments has not yet hit its limit.

So he’s managed to surprise us all repeatedly throughout his career, and the future, if his line-up of upcoming films is anything to go by, looks just as bright. No doubt he’ll continue to branch off down further avenues until attempts to group his films become nigh on impossible. He may not be the showiest of film composers, or the highest profile, but he’s proven one of the most effective. Long may it continue.

Alexandre Desplat will appear in person with regular contributors the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London on Thursday 11 Dec. There will also be an opportunity to meet the composer himself for a free pre-concert Q&A. Click here for tickets and further concert details. 

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