The Banal Musical Themes of Alexandre Desplat


Why, if a film is meant to be as historically accurate as possible, should its soundtrack be allowed—even encouraged—to be flagrantly out-of-sync with the times and styles being portrayed on screen?

Consider two far-from-celebrated examples. Mel Gibson’s god-awful Passion of Christ (2004) purported to be the most historically precise rendering of the crucifixion ever to be thrown up onto the big screen. Such was Gibson’s dedication to detail that he even insisted on the right the language: his Jesus spoke Aramaic, albeit with the noticeable drawl of actor Jim Cavaziel, whose diction seemed characteristic of the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the twentieth century rather than those of the Sea of Galilee in the first.

All was carefully thought out in this Passion, at least by the standards of the spurious director. Yet John Debney’s score was unapologetically modern in its use of synthesized instruments and voices patching together a collage made up of amorphous modal shapes and generic Middle Eastern melodic figures, all of them about as culturally sensitive as a Condé Nast Traveler video.

Why the free pass for the off-screen music? Because it was, as always, charged with doing the heavy lifting of manipulating the emotions of the viewers, many of whom were either taxed or ticked-off by the nuisance of the subtitles. A nimbus of saintly strings, the ululations of an ethnically indeterminate electro-choir, the cry of a desert flute, and the thwack of a studio drum: these were deemed necessary to animate dread and devotion in the viewer. Anyway, Gibson was answering to a higher authority than the one that might have reminded him that there had been no soundtrack at Calvary. But for all its blatant modernity, Debney’s music nonetheless used current cinematic signifiers of emotion and geography to support the story rather than as a jarring juxtaposition to it.

The opposite approach is to harness temporal dissonance for dramatic effect. In Marie Antoinette (2006), Sofia Coppola loaded her film’s soundtrack with 1980s punk/pop from the likes of The Cure and Bow Wow Wow meant to frizz up her couture costume drama with a decadent sexual charge, and in so doing distract from the vacuity of the movie.

Coppola did make some aural concessions to the past, introducing music by Vivaldi, Scarlatti, and Rameau. Yet even these musical trappings were for the most part inaccurate, not least since each one of these composers was already dead by the time Marie Antoinette ascended the French throne. Such displacements follow a rule of thumb posited by my departed colleague Christopher Hogwood, who claimed that when movie music presents itself as historically accurate it is usually poached from fifty years before the events depicted.

Closer to our own time than either Jesus of Nazareth and Marie Antoinette are the Copenhagen, Paris and Dresden of the 1920s—the European cities that host the the beautiful people of the Danish Girl, a cinematic memoir of one of the first transgender women, Lili Elbe. The movie is directed by Tom Hooper, who does a lot of period pieces, from the eighteenth-century HBO mini-series John Adams (2006) to his Oscar-winning King’s Speech set in the late 1930s, that is, a decade after the Danish Girl takes place.

In The Danish Girl, painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) cannot resist the allure of fabrics, all lovingly and exactingly reproduced for his touch and our gaze: ball gowns, furs, stockings, tutus. The men’s suits, too, are no less sumptuous, especially those worn by Einar’s boyhood friend, Hans Axil (Matthias Schoenarts), a dandy, who has, since their shared youth, become a successful art dealer in Paris. Hans directs Einar towards the elegantly clad German doctor (Sebastian Koch), who will perform the pioneering surgeries.

The interiors and exteriors are no less lavish and precise in their evocation of time and place: the walls of the Copenhagen apartment Einar shares with his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), are the washed-out blue of a Scandinavian summer sky. The art dealer’s office is an art noveau masterpiece of glowing contoured mullions and mirrors. The opulent Paris apartment in which the Wegener’s take up residence after Gerda’s success with her portraits of her cross-dressing husband is an orgy of window treatments, soft upholstery and period lighting. The grand interiors of museums and galleries are sedulously scrubbed of all marks of modernity. Such is the film’s excess of visual control that the folded newspapers worn as bonnets by the female fishmongers in Copenhagen’s New Harbor, its facades of baroque yellow and red bright in the northern gloom, probably have headlines—in Danish—from November 1930.

Against all this bedazzlement, cinematic convention allows for glaring departures from verisimilitude. The actors speak English not Danish. Some Norwegian scenery is transplanted to Denmark in the form of a rugged peak above a spectacular fjord—the necessary backdrop, it seems, for clichés of cinematic transcendence. And most egregious of all there is Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack.

Desplat worked with Hooper on the King’s Speech, whose best music was provided by Beethoven, the second movement Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony drafted into service as the movie’s main theme. Admittedly, it’s tough to outdo old Ludwig when it comes to heroism, so Desplat opted for a lot of lugubrious strings and mournful melody-making along the lines of Samuel Barber’s Adagio—already an overused piece (and soundtrack idiom) before Oliver Stone fragged it in Platoon thirty years ago.

Like so many prolific musicians of the past Desplat is adept at putting together what amounts to pre-existing material—“composing” in the original sense of the word. A talent for assembly is what allowed Vivaldi to crank out more than five hundred concertos and plenty of operas to boot. Along with many before and since, Vivaldi proved that formulae can made to yield not only abundance, but also art.

Desplat’s abundance has meant that it’s hard to avoid one of his scores if you want to go to the movies these days. Last year he finally won an Oscar for the whimsy of his Grand Budapest Hotel score, one that was in competition against another of his soundtracks—the more symphonic Imitation Game. With two horses in the running, Desplat was the favorite, and he got the statuette after having received eight nominations in nine years. While Desplat did five major soundtracks in 2015, neither his impressive output nor his success should necessarily be held against him: many composers of the past have churned out more music and worked for princes more tyrannical than even the despots of Hollywood.

Still, one begins to hear in Desplat’s soundtracks the predictable course of an imagination switched to auto-pilot. Superficial differences such as instrumentation between do not hide the basic unities of his approach. These features include: a circumscribed harmonic vocabulary; a penchant for predominantly stepwise melody motion (economy of scales); and a fondness for the mixing of major and minor that is a frequent method employed by film composer’s to convey uncertainty about their characters’ future, even when, as is usually the case, the ending is easy to predict.

The naively banal musical themes of the Danish Girl title track reflect these operating procedures even while they encapsulate the psychological themes of the story. Desplat starts as he often does by conjuring yet one more halo of strings—the soul in a state of suspension, the high tessitura intimating femininity, at least according to long-accepted modes of musical signification. The bass begins a repetitive three-note descent: not yet a lament, but threatening to become one. A melody of crystalline simplicity emerges on a music-box piano as if trapped within the construction’s glittering minimalistic confines. A rising ostinato made up of first five notes of a minor scale chimes in with motion that goes nowhere. Tiny bells ring out. What results from this recipe is nothing less than a version of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, a piece often riffed on by Hollywood composers, but usually reserved for Yuletide hijinks. Desplat’s update of Tchaikovsky’s confection is, like its model, ethereal and disembodied—an all-too-precious musical portrayal of the disjunction between Lili/Einar’s mind and body.

In departing stylistically from Lili’s day, Desplat’s non-period music hopes to transform her struggle into a modern one, to make a specific time become timeless. In this effort, the soundtrack often wants us to believe it is as fragile as silk stockings. But the continual crescendos of Desplat’s music behind the stultifying historical prettiness of The Danish Girl soon prove that the score is in fact as stretchable as nylon—with all the irritating texture of a future that can fit any past.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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