Alexandre Desplat is one of the most prolific film composers of our time and has scored more than a 100 films. His work has garnered huge critical successes and has earned him several accolades, including two Academy Awards, three BAFTAs, two Golden Globes and two Grammy Awards. He is famous for his beautiful contributions to films like The Shape of Water and The Imitation Game among others.
Born in Paris, Desplat was interested in music from an early age. His influences ranged from early twentieth-century French composers, such as Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, to jazz and world music. A lifelong fan of cinema, he knew he wanted to work in the film industry and started his career by working on his first film, Le souffleur, in 1986.
On what is his 59th birthday, we revisit some of the best film scores by the truly talented Alexandre Desplat.
The 10 Best Alexandre Desplat Soundtracks:
10. Little Women (Greta Gerwig – 2019)
For the 2019 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel, Desplat put together a glorious score with an orchestra in New York. A musical without lyrics, the film’s soundtrack is dynamic and intimate at the same time which works really well with the subject matter: the familiarity of the home and the forcefulness of women’s empowerment.
Alexandre Desplat said: “To capture the life of these four young girls on their path to adulthood, I have called in the four hands of two pianists. They are surrounded by a chamber orchestra, which keeps us in the intimate world of these ‘little women.’
“We recorded the score in New York City with the most wonderful musicians whose musicality and virtuosity went beyond my expectations.”
9. Birth (Jonathan Glazer – 2004)
Desplat creates an unsettling score that combines the traditional with the unconventional- particularly waltzes – and familiar horror movie sounds for Glazer’s 2004 psychological thriller. Simultaneously disruptive and smooth, the sounds of deep drums and dancing flutes perfectly capture the sense of ominous foreboding that the film aims for.
Desplat commented on how he treats critical reception, saying, “Sometimes it’s useful to read things, good or bad. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it stupid because they say stupid things. Like you read that it’s a great scene, people love your music in the scene in Birth when Nicole Kidman is at the opera and she is listening to Wagner and people think it’s my music. It’s certainly embarrassing. I like that people think I write as good as Wagner, but… it’s part of the game.”
8. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski – 2010)
Embodying the icy chill of winter and the pulse-quickening pace of Polanski’s brilliant thriller, Desplat’s score wonderfully complements the intriguing story. It’s structured like a ride into the depths of chaotic misery just like Ewan McGregor’s character who finds himself falling deeper into the twisted mysteries of a former British Prime Minister (played by Pierce Brosnan).
“The Ghost Writer was a very tough one also because Roman Polanski was not present at the time,” the composer revealed. “Roman Polanski’s filmography is so outstanding. His music in his films are so special, strong and so smart. One of my favourite scores of all time is Chinatown from Jerry Goldsmith. It was challenging. When I started working with Roman on this film, I knew it was a dangerous path.
He added, “I knew I had to be bloody good [laughs]. He has great ears and knows exactly what he wants done. He was one of the greatest directors I have worked with. He had us push ourselves over our limits and helped us find something special and different. He pushes you but also wants you to surprise him and bring something he hasn’t thought about. It was a great experience for me.”
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson – 2009)
The score of Anderson’s 2009 animated film is an amalgamation of a variety of influences, featuring songs by The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones to Burl Ives, two old Georges Delerue pieces, and an original score from Desplat. The composer uses banjos, guitars, fiddles, and all manner of unusual percussion to mimic the child-like innocence while also paying a lot of attention to detail.
“I just felt that if we found a sound that would belong to these little puppets, it would make them come alive,” Desplat said. “I suggested to Wes that we do a sort of puppet orchestra. I wanted to make everything sound like they were playing. I wanted little things—the mandolin, the banjo, the whistle, the recorder and all these little families of instruments. They weren’t toys but kind of toyish instruments.”
6. The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper – 2010)
The soundtrack for The King’s Speech was recorded at Abbey Road studios using original royal microphones which had been stored in the EMI archives for more than 70 years and were designed for King George VI for speeches on significant occasions. The ‘speech’ itself was set to Beethoven but Desplat’s original soundtrack, played by his regular pianist Dave Arch and coupled with gentle string and woodwind accompaniments was regal. It won him the BAFTA Award for the Best Original Music.
Speaking about the film, Desplat said, “It’s actually one of the main elements, the fact that this man [Bertie, played by Colin Firth] lives in silence. He can’t [easily] express himself or his feelings and I had to take that into consideration for all the elements—the melodies, etc.— to be integrated.
“The film itself stands for two hours with no faults. It manages to have all these elements crystallized—which is very difficult. I was impressed by how incredibly crafted this is; how [director] Tom [Hooper] challenged the placement of the camera, the use of the frame, everything is very thoughtful.”
5. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum – 2014)
Although Desplat was only given three weeks to prepare for the film, he knew just how to translate the psychological conflicts of Alan Turing’s tormented mind to music. Choosing to do away with an orchestra, Desplat used machines to randomly layer multiple piano tracks over each other as a tribute to the godfather of computers as well as to mimic the mechanisms of the human brain.
“I tend to like trying to find a sense of continuity when I compose a score, and in this particular film, the structure is extremely complex,” Desplat explained. “It seems clear and simple, but it’s actually complex. There are a lot of flashbacks that resonate with something in the flashforwards and I needed to get a handle on the person.”
Adding, “For example, in The Imitation Game, when the camera at the end of the film has those beautiful shots of the young boy, the young Alan, and he’s meeting with the professor who’s telling him his friend Christopher is dead, and the camera is pushing in on him, I play Christopher’s theme that we heard very early on in the film. There’s a simple continuity there. It’s the accumulation of these moments that I can slowly but surely play that make it even stronger.”
4. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick – 2011)
Malick’s masterpiece is set in the 1950s and follows the story of a Midwestern family. Desplat’s score acts as a binding force, providing an acceleration during the moments between moments. According to Malick, Desplat’s music is like a river flowing through the film and signifies “light, silence and the innocence of childhood.”
“Yeah, there was a kind of a roadmap to have a theme for the kids, for Hunter, the boy, who is fantastic in the film,” Desplat said of the soundtrack’s thematic elements.
Adding: “A theme for the father, a theme for the love that the mother is delivering to the children, a theme that would be river-like, like the storyline, that would follow the storyline that life goes on, a theme for the temptation, a theme for the darkness when a child’s innocence is being jeopardised.”
3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher – 2008)
Taking inspiration from the subject matter and incorporating them into the score, Desplat’s compositions act as musical palindromes and become synchronous with the events on screen. Always subtle and beautiful, they are a crucial part of the film’s philosophy.
“If I were to show off too much about my reverse thing,” the composer explained, “it would be disconnected from the picture and the story, and we have to be really, completely overwhelmed by the story before everything. The goal is to make the music really a part of the skin of the film, and not be detached.”
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson – 2014)
Wes Anderson’s whimsical cinematic gem is wonderfully paired with the quirky, unpredictable and colourful composition of Desplat. The composer translates the unique artistic vision of Anderson’s world to his imaginative score. He received an Academy Award for his musical score on this film.
“I knew how to appropriately combine and play with the sounds,” Desplat recalled. “The great idea that Wes had was to get rid of any string instruments, and that created another dimension of sounds. It created another mood and atmosphere that was very airy, joyful, and light at the same time.
“I must say, music in Wes’s films is crucial. It’s really part of the DNA of the film. What melodies belong to what characters is also an aspect of his music, and captures the aspect of his films so beautifully.”
1. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro -2017)
Desplat shapes his musical structure like del Toro shapes his narrative, focusing on the elemental mannerisms of water. The score is an immersive experience in itself that manifests the central ideas of the film in the form of an arpeggiated melody that rolls forward in waves. The beautiful and surreal composition won him his second Academy Award for Best Original Score.
“[Water] takes the shape of everything. It goes through the air, it’s invisible, it’s transparent, but it still has a lot of power,” Desplat said while speaking of the film’s central theme. “We were talking about water…I must admit—it was completely unconscious, but the melody I wrote for the opening scene is actually made of waves. I did not do that on purpose, but by being completely immersed in this love and these water elements, I wrote a melody that plays arpeggios like waves.”
Desplat was full of praise for del Toro, saying, “I believe Guillermo is a true artist. He showed me the film last January, and I was in total shock by the beauty of the film. He’s made something, which I think is the most difficult thing, interweaving reality and imagination and bringing the audience into that world with no effort. It effortlessly takes you into his world, and that’s very rare.”