The Desplat Sound
Why the Argo composer should win the Oscar—and why I’ll see anything he scores.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
In the category for Best Score at the Oscars this year, there are nothing but worthy contenders. Thomas Newman’s dark, smoky score for Skyfall—along with Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, also nominated—was largely responsible for making that perfectly serviceable action film feel like more than just the latest product from the 007 factory. John Williams’ simple yet soaring music for Lincoln, with its echoes of Aaron Copland, nearly reached the standard of the great Spielberg/Williams collaborations of yore—even if Spielberg laid it on a little thick with his use of the score at moments when Tony Kushner’s script was doing just fine on its own. Mychael Danna’s delicate, Indian-inflected music for Life of Pi and Dario Marianelli’s sprightly dances for Anna Karenina both provided elegant sonic backdrops for what were, in my view, otherwise flawed films.* But the composer I’m most hoping to see ascend the podium—and not just because he’s a lanky French dreamboat who’ll look great in evening wear—is Alexandre Desplat, who created the score for Argo.
Though it has some beautiful passages (especially those involving the haunting voice of the Iranian-born singer Sussan Deyhim), the conventionally suspenseful Argo score might not have been my choice for Desplat’s most interesting work this year, let alone over the course of a nearly 30-year career. In 2012 alone the astonishingly prolific Parisian also scored Zero Dark Thirty, Moonrise Kingdom, Rise of the Guardians, Rust and Bone, and several more films not released in the United States. Desplat may be my favorite composer working in mainstream movies today—when I see his name connected to a project, I know there’ll be at least one interesting thing about it.
One of Desplat’s chief strengths as a composer (though one, ironically, that may put him at a disadvantage in awards season—he’s been nominated five times and never won) is that he has no recognizable signature style. Directors don’t hire him to provide a known quantity, an “Alexandre Desplat sound.” He’s an infinitely malleable shape-shifter, capable of creating taut suspense scores (Argo, The Ghost Writer) or yearning romantic ones (Twilight: New Moon; Lust, Caution; Moonrise Kingdom). When he’s working with the right director, Desplat can write music that’s inextricable from the viewer’s memory of the film itself. I can’t think of Fantastic Mr. Fox—the only Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore that I’ve unreservedly loved—without immediately hearing Desplat’s music, a marvel of playfulness and wit with an inventive orchestration perfectly suited to Anderson’s bricoleur sensibility. Banjo, mouth harp, celeste, and glockenspiel combine to create a sound that’s equal parts hoedown and windup music box, with the odd nod to Ennio Morricone. (Desplat himself provides the whistled leitmotif associated with the film’s fox-hunting farmer villains.) And you have to watch Zero Dark Thirty a second time to fully realize the degree to which the music—all low, moody brass and muffled percussion, with very few discernible melody lines—provides an unsettling substrate for the shifting moral alliances of the story.
A classically trained flutist and longtime cinephile who always knew he wanted to compose for films, the 51-year-old Desplat grew up frequenting Parisian moviehouses in the days before home video, immersing himself in the work of great European and American composers: Among the influences he’s cited are Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini, Georges Delerue, Maurice Jarre, Nino Rota, and Franz Waxman. But his knowledge of non-Western, non-film-related musicianship is also wide-ranging: Desplat played bossa nova and Brazilian pop with a band in his teens and is also versed in Greek and Afro-Caribbean music and jazz.
That musical sophistication and richness of reference is evident in everything he does, especially when it comes to orchestration, an aspect of film composing Desplat is especially passionate about. (“If I was rich enough,” he told one interviewer, “I’d buy the London Symphony Orchestra.”) You wouldn’t think the sound of the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute, would be at home in the very British universe of Hogwarts School, but Desplat uses the instrument to enchanting effect in the scores he wrote for parts one and two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And in his jangly, Herrmannesque score for Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer he had the inspiration of using “singing flute”—a style of playing in which flutists vocalize directly into their instruments, à la Jethro Tull—for the film’s oneiric main theme. To my ear, it’s among Desplat’s best work:
The charming musical suite that accompanies the final credits of Moonrise Kingdom pays tribute to the composer’s love for stacking one unexpected sound atop another, as a young boy’s voice names each instrument as it joins the mix (an homage to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which the movie’s 12-year-old hero listens to on his portable record player throughout the film).
Desplat has said in interviews that he’s not interested in using music simply as mood-appropriate underscoring: “I always think the score should bring out the invisible, because what’s on screen is on screen. Why double it?” True to his word, Desplat’s scores often function in counterpoint to the on-screen action or explore the film’s themes on a structural level that might not be immediately apparent to listeners, even if the music still affects them viscerally. For example, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—the story of a man who ages backward through time so that he’s born as an old man and dies as a baby—Desplat wrote a subtle “palindrome hook,” a simple piano theme that sounds the same played forward as backward. (He talks about its construction here while demonstrating on the piano.)
There’s one more reason to hope Alexandre Desplat wins on Sunday: I bet he’d give a killer speech. He comes across in interviews as a beautifully spoken, unfailingly modest, insatiably curious guy—a self-described synesthete who strongly associates music with color. (His score for The Tree of Life was composed in C major because, he says, “to me C sounds white and pure,” while the Harry Potter scores appear to him as “grey-bluish.”) Asked by an interviewer whether his idea for the palindrome theme in Benjamin Button made him pause for a second to pat himself on the back, Desplat laughed off the notion: “You never say to yourself, ‘It’s brilliant.’ You always keep in mind that you’re a worm and that you have to do something better each time.” That’s the attitude I like to see in my Oscar winners. Vas-y, Alexandre!
Correction, Feb. 22, 2013: This article originally misspelled Dario Marianelli's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)