I no longer remember my first exposure to the music of Alexandre Desplat. It seems like his musical gifts have always been with me. Desplat is one of the few contemporary composers who consistently brings me joy. When I see his name in the list of credits, I’m immediately interested.
Whether it’s his mastery of orchestration (those flutes!), the churning rhythms, or his comfortability in every film genre, Desplat’s musical voice is instantly recognizable. Yet few composers can completely switch gears and create a separate distinctive style for a particular director. The collaboration between Desplat and Wes Anderson is every bit as important as other legendary composer-director combos like John Williams and Steven Spielberg, Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, Georges Delerue and François Truffaut, to name a few.
As contemporary film music becomes further enmeshed in the muck and mire of the sound design and pedal tones are ridiculously praised as profound musical visions, Desplat’s overtly melodic sensibilities are more than welcome. Just when I think I’ve heard all he has to say, he surprises me once again. (See #3 below.) With two well-deserved Oscars under his belt, what better way to relaunch the “9 on the 9th” series with this humble salute to France’s latest musical gift to film…
9. THE GHOST WRITER (2010)
Roman Polanski’s thriller was one of the few times I’ve gone to the movies strictly because of the composer involved. Certainly, the “writer” aspect of the storyline appealed to me as well. But really it was Desplat who got me in the door. The score perfectly captures Polanski’s unique brand of taut, terrifying tension, which was particularly effective in the confines of the theater.
8. ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)
One of my most embarrassing moments…ever. The hunt leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden is in its final seconds. The entire audience is holding its collective breath, and the only sound you hear beyond the stealth on screen is your heart beating a mile a minute. In the tense quiet… Brrrrrrring! goes my cell phone. So much for that climax. Since then I’ve been diligent about silencing and/or turning off the dreaded device, but the memory still stings. What also stings is Deplat’s dark dramatic music, devoid of heroics but deeply dramatic.
7. THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)
The story of a platoon assigned to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves deserved better than George Clooney’s lighthearted take. And while I may not agree with Clooney’s GREAT ESCAPEapproach to the historical source material, it did allow Desplat the chance to compose a wide range of musical styles. From a rousing Elmer Bernstein-esque march and action set pieces to a lovely Ernest Gold-like love theme for Claire (Cate Blanchett) and Granger (Matt Damon) and an emotional end for Jean Dujardain’s French soldier.
6. THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)
Guillermo del Toro’s romantic homage to the creature features of the 1950s and ’60s was the expected (though still surprising) Oscar winner, no doubt sweeping Desplat to his well deserved second Oscar. A memorable main theme, twelve flutes, Argentinian accordion, a flowing harp accompaniment, and Desplat’s own whistling give voice to Sally Hawkins’ mute heroine and her underwater lover. The highlight of the score is Hawkins’ “monologue” underscored by a poignant piano melody and a heartbreaking countermelody in the low strings and flutes.
5. THE PAINTED VEIL (2006)
Somerset Maugham’s classic tale of a love triangle set against a cholera epidemic in a small Chinese village may not have been the best film to release during the holiday season. Audiences stayed away like, well, the plague. What they missed was an affecting, if depressing, film, anchored by Desplat’s beautiful score brimming with exoticism, sweeping waltzes, and a hint of Satie.
Sentiment nearly always wins out at the Oscars. That’s why the emotional and affecting story of King George VI’s speech impediment beat the icy yet equally effective story of corporate greed at the core of THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ contemporary tracks may have bested Desplat’s Beethoven-flavored score. But without Desplat on the podium, the struggle behind the king’s speech would have been far less affecting—and far less effective.
3. LITTLE WOMEN (2019)
Did we really need another version of LITTLE WOMEN? Damn right, we did! Greta Gerwig’s controversial reordering of Louisa May Alcott’s classic story gave it a fresh spin, echoed in her direction to Desplat about the score—”Mozart meets David Bowie.” Whether running with Jo through the sidewalks of old New York, waltzing along the beach, or scissoring through the improvised dance on the porch, the music is as carefree, energetic, and filled with forward motion as Alcott’s little women, until Desplat rips the emotional rug out from under you and the tears crest and fall.
2. EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011)
After seeing this film, I thought for sure this was the Oscar winner for Best Picture. And while it received that nomination (and one for Max von Sydow’s mute neighbor), it was shut out of all the other categories. Critics were overly harsh to the film and audiences were uninterested in this story of a young boy searching for the lock that matches the key left by his father, who died in the World Trade Center attacks. Maybe it was the 9/11 aspect that kept audiences away, or maybe it was the holiday release that was a poor choice. Either way, audiences missed a truly emotional experience and one of Desplat’s most beautiful scores.
1. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
The quintessential example of Desplat’s style for Wes Anderson and the surprising, yet fully deserved first Oscar for the composer. The music sparkles with wit without a single wasted note, a rhythmic steadiness that captures Anderson’s perfectly composed shots without a prop out of place, spare orchestrations that sparkle with their musical inventiveness, and an unexpected emotional core. The film was egregiously denied Best Picture and Director to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s BIRDMAN. No matter. This one’s a winner all the way around.