On Queue October pT. 2: Alexandre Desplat, Bernard Herrmann, Ryuichi Sakamoto/Alva Moto/Bryce Dessner
Full disclosure, I was rooting for Phantom Thread for best score at this year’s Oscars. I can’t say I was surprised Alexandre Desplat walked away with the award and now, closing in on a year removed from the release of The Shape Of Water, this score has really grown on me.
I came to realize my original gripe with the academy’s decision came while considering the pure music–I had strong feelings and would still argue Jonny Greenwood’s music from Phantom Thread, when separated from the image, held my attention and interest in a more captivating and enthralling manner. When I gave the Desplat’s score the attention it deserved (i.e. considering it in association with the beautiful visuals of Guillermo del Toro’s film) I realized how much attention was put on the color and timbre of the score resulting in a perfect sonic interpretation of the dark, enchanting, and unnerving world where the story unfolds.
Desplat is a giant in the film scoring world. The French-Greek composer has collected two Academy awards and seven nominations for his work. He frequently provides the soundtracks for the brilliantly quirky films of Wes Anderson. Desplat’s filmography for both English and French films is extensive, but I have a hard time finding another one of his scores that accompanies a film with such convincing and accurate representations of the film’s characters.
The film begins with the title theme, “The Shape of Water,” it is a bubbling and mystifying cue filled with a feeling of “fairy tail turned dark.” The steady harp motif that rises and falls behind the melody throughout paints a picture of bubbles or maybe of the hypnotizing motion of waves rising and falling.
The flute, piano, accordion, harp, and other instruments in the upper registers lift the score to tell the love story above the looming evil, heard in the strings, that seeks to tear Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the amphibian creature (Doug Jones) apart. Low strings in “The Creature” feel as though they elude to the infamous theme from Jaws as flute stays near its lower range.
We are introduced to Elisa’s leitmotif in “Elisa’s Theme,” a playful theme that warms the listener. The plucky flute lines in this theme can be heard later in the score during “Overflow Of Love.” Elisa’s leitmotif returns slightly altered and seems to stop and start almost as if lost for words or for breath.
This feeling of desire continues in “Underwater Kiss,” in which Elisa’s theme and the opening title theme are passed back and forth giving the listener an idea of this conflicted love story.
The brilliance of this score lies in the subtle changes in timbre and phrasing that shift the audience between the excitement of love and an overwhelming sensation of fear in the blink of an eye. With the love story between human and creature, not much is said, but it is clear what is felt. For Desplat, what he says (the melodies) may appear simple, but how he speaks in this score makes all the difference.
Vertigo has quickly vaulted to the top of almost all film junkies’ rankings of Alfred Hitchcock films, although at its release it wasn’t necessarily a box office hit. Many attributed this to the tragic nature of the ending while Hitchcock was quick to blame his aging lead, James Stewart, who he felt may have not been a convincing love interest for 25-year-old, Kim Novak.
Hollywood gossip aside, it is safe to say Bernard Herrmann’s score, the fourth collaboration between these two masters of their craft, is a major contributor to this film’s infamous milieu. One must look no further than the legendary opening title sequence to hear this. Saul Bass created a spiraling animation that is accompanied by music that, quite literally, has vertigo. A repeated pattern of major thirds seems to spiral into a never ending abyss.
The plot has been compared to that of Proust’s “Tristan und Isolde,” which was famously made into an opera by Richard Wagner and premiered in 1865. This is widely considered as the pivotal moment in music history where classical music was no longer reliant on a tonal center or common practice harmony–it is the foundation of 20th century music. These sentiments, and even quotes from Wagner’s opera, fill the score adding to the eerie glow of the story and setting. Whereas tonality relies on the use of half steps and a mixture of minor and major intervals, Herrmann’s opening gesture with equally spaced major thirds immediately disorients the listener in an unsettling vortex that cannot be shaken, not even during moments of great desire and passion.
Herrmann cleverly uses leitmotifs associated with love and obsession throughout the film. These themes and motifs grow, transform, and mature as the plot unfolds. It takes a psychological toll on the listener as the score seems to point the audience towards a certain conclusion while having to sit hopelessly as the plot unfolds.
The most famous moment of the score, besides the opening sequence, is “Scene D’Amour.” The climax erupts as Stewart and Novak embrace for a kiss. We hear the love theme as it cycles through emotions of joy, romance, haunting fear, and back again. Herrmann so brilliantly, through his uses of motifs and orchestra, is able to communicate this love will not last for ever.
My favorite quote from Herrmann reads, “to orchestrate is like a thumbprint.” The importance of color in his music and to his ear is what made him one of the greatest film composers of all time. his style was well suited for the eerie thrillers that Hitchcock became so well known for and Vertigo was certainly the the pinnacle of this collaboration. Herrmann’s contribution to this film deepens the picture so beautifully that the music has, as Alex Ross puts it, “found a life outside the film.”
Before getting into the score, if you have the opportunity to see “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda” I cannot recommend it enough. It is an incredibly well thought out biographical documentary about Ryuichi Sakamoto. Rather than just starting from the beginning and move forward with the story of his life, we see him in the present day as he works on a new album and fights a caner diagnosis while working on the score for The Revenant. Through this struggle, we hear about moments in his life and his story is told.
But back to the matter at hand, The Revenant. For those that have seen the film, the images and landscapes we see are breathtaking. The vastness and power of nature is put on full display. The three composers masterfully create a soundscape that is representative of the immeasurable landscape, which at times can be hauntingly silent, and the slow and painful death that Leonardo DiCaprio inches towards.
Much of the power in this score lies in the mix. The opening theme is a simple two chord motif that sits in the air with wind noise underneath it. This two chord motif appears throughout the score. It feels a slow and painful heart beat–each instance takes increasingly more effort. After three or four cues of mainly ambient drones or reverb soaked chords, “Killing Hawk” introduces the gritty and percussive sound of col legno strings when stringed instruments are hit with the wood of the bow rather than the hair. It is an unnerving attrition to the soundscape.
“Goodbye To Hawk” melds together strings and synthesizers playing slowly swooping melodies in front of synth basses that pulse in the manner of a funeral march. The use of synthesizers is a surprising choice in a film that is so deeply rooted in nature. There is an uncanny balance between these instruments and devises that enhances the sense of a churning expanse rather than a confusing muddle of voices.
One of Bryce Dessner’s contributions to the soundtrack is perhaps the most emotional cue of the whole film. “Imagining Buffalo” does not waver from the minimalistic theme of the soundtrack, but the additive process and layering of strings creates a rising chorus of beautiful dissonance. Low and high strings call and respond to one another while a middle range drown stabilizes the chord. Like many of the cues on this soundtrack, I am left in astonishment of the emotional power of a single, drawn out chord.
The color palate of the soundtrack is as cold as the wind that sweeps through Alejandro D. Iñárritu’s western. It becomes hard to make a distinction between beauty and terror as you sit within the slowly evolving textures. In many ways this mirrors our experience with nature–the beauty of the natural world can become a source of unrelenting terror and pain without warning.