Music in the movies: Alexandre Desplat

With Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life out this Friday, Glen looks back at the work of its prolific composer, Alexandre Desplat…

One of the most prolific and sought after composers working today, Alexandre Desplat is now a regular nominee during awards season, having been nominated four times in the last five years at the Academy Awards and BAFTAs.

With his score for Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life about to be heard as the film hits cinemas, I though now would be the ideal time to look at some of the notable scores of his career.

Hostage

Desplat takes a rather unconventional approach to scoring here, as he did with many of his early efforts. Instead of taking typical orchestrations to evoke the kind of heightened tension common in thrillers, he opts to approach Hostage as if he were composing for a rather classy horror film.

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This is evident in the piano motif that carries the film, and the use of vocals provided by his young daughter, Antonia Desplat, to create an unsettling atmosphere. The film itself has some decent moments, but the thing that draws me back to it is its score – a fine example of a score elevating the film it accompanies.

The Queen

Much like last year’s score for The King’s Speech, this is far from Desplat’s best from its year, but it was the one that earned nominations during awards season. Played by the London Symphony Orchestra, it’s by no means a bad score, and is certainly a classy piece of work that suits the film well, but the interesting moments and eccentricities of some of his other pieces are lacking here.

It’s quite minimalist, and there are moments of beauty, but this isn’t a case of the composer operating to the best of his ability as some of the praise directed at it would have you believe.

The Painted Veil 

Desplat avoided the temptation to adopt an oriental tinged approach for his score for John Curran’s The Painted Veil. The simplicity of the score is one of its greatest strengths – like the film itself, it doesn’t need to go out of its way to elicit emotion, and it relies on its performers.

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Whereas the film has the likes of Ed Norton and Naomi Watts, Desplat has Chinese pianist Lang Lang and cellist Vincent Segal to bring his score to life and draw out the necessary emotions. Desplat’s score here is by no means his best work, but it’s interesting to compare scores such as this and Hostage to some of his later pieces, as it shows how great he is at producing simple and effective scores that convey the emotions with similar results to his grander pieces.

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is an odd film, clearly aimed at a young audience, with ambitions of becoming a franchise in the vein of Potter. It also featured some quite violent moments, perfectly demonstrated when a bloody great bear smashes the jaw off another similarly gigantic beast.

The film didn’t quite do it for me, that scene aside, but I don’t imagine that I’m the target audience. Desplat’s score, however, really is quite magnificent. It marked his most expansive and traditional score to date, but there are flourishes of his individualism throughout. He had approached dramatic pieces prior to this, but it’s safe to say that he hadn��t tackled action of such scale up to this point.

There are times where it seems a bit of a mess, but overall, it’s a strong effort that no doubt would have made him the ideal candidate to tackle the score for the Potter franchise a few years later.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

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I have to say that this is my least favourite of David Fincher’s films (even taking into consideration Alien 3). Sure, it looks amazing, but the material did little for me, and failed to hook me in emotionally to the extent that it did for others.

That is, of course, not a reflection on the score by Desplat, which is an achingly beautiful piece of work that, listened to in isolation, takes me on an emotional journey in a way that the film itself doesn’t. For a score that delivers on an emotional front such as this, it’s a surprise that at no point does it seem manipulative.

Coco Before Chanel

A film about one of France’s most respected fashion designers deserved the talents of one of the country’s finest composers. The score is effortlessly brilliant, and shows how a light touch and attention to detail can be just as effective as a bombastic assault.

More often than not, Desplat’s compositions are understated, and this is a fine example of his understated brilliance. A number of themes are used throughout the film, and these leitmotifs really give the score added depth.

Even with the London Symphony Orchestra at his disposal, Desplat has the confidence to deliver a quietly assured piece whose subtlety gets under your skin.

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Twilight Saga: New Moon

Now, I’m no hater of the Twilight franchise (though I’m not the hugest fan either). I thought the first film was okay, the third instalment very good, and New Moon, well, I thought this one was awful.

Fortunately, though, the score justified me sitting through it. Desplat conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, and goes much grander than Carter Burwell’s score for the first film in the series, and sometimes it works, but sometimes it misses the mark spectacularly.

Like the film itself, the score does suffer from being overly melodramatic. There are moments of subtle creepiness, but these get lost amongst the grandeur of the piece as a whole.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 

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2010 was a fruitful year for Desplat, with this score marking one of four scores of the composer’s being heard in multiplexes, and marking some of the finest work of his career. I have already covered his score for The Ghost Writer (my favourite of his from last year), and his Oscar-nominated score for The King’s Speech in previous entries of this column, which is why they aren’t included here.

The presence of John Williams’ score has loomed large over the Harry Potter franchise, and the numerous other composers, who have taken the task of scoring one of the most successful franchises of recent times, have done so varying degrees of success. I think it’s the score for Deathly Hallows: Part 1 that, for me, has come closest to matching Williams’ work.

Desplat composed a mature, epic and emotional score that hits the right marks throughout. It’s a shame that neither this score nor the score for The Ghost Writer got any awards season recognition, and instead the attention went to his weakest effort from 2010.

Given just how prolific Desplat is, there are dozens of omissions. Please feel free to add your Desplat highlights below.