Unchained Melodies

Claire Denis, Tindersticks, and the musical muse in cinema
by Max Goldberg  posted May 26, 2011
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Entering the Castro Theatre for Tindersticks' live re-creation of their Claire Denis scores during the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this month, one wondered how the players would squeeze in amid the tangle of instruments. There were guitars, drums, strings, winds, keys, and all manner of smaller noisemakers for this performance that featured the Nottingham band's six scores for the French filmmaker, all recently collected on a Constellation Records box set. (To commemorate the release, Tindersticks also played shows in Paris, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.) The band can sound quite baroque on its proper albums, but the instrumentation of the scores is deliberate and even restrained. Along with Agnès Godard's camerawork and the faces of regular actors like Grégoire Colin and Alex Descas, these musical arrangements provide one of the key expressive surfaces of Denis's films.

Denis once said of her first collaboration with Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples for Nénette and Boni, "Stuart and his music gave us more courage to be elliptical, abstract....The music uninhibited me so I could fabricate the film." It hardly needs saying that this is not what narrative film scores typically do—we're far from the deterministic and emotionally reductive logic of "underscoring." "From the moment we get a rough edit to the time we find the spark of an idea—even if it's just a note or a sound—the conversation with Claire is quite intense," Staples told me the afternoon before the show. "We're not at all left in our own world."

The Castro's narrow stage was bathed in blue as the eight musicians took their places, and soon the screen was too. The band opened by recasting their first sequence for Denis, from Nénette and Boni. Here was adolescent Nénette (Alice Houri) floating on her back in a pool again, her hair spread across the water and the vibraphone theme lending additional buoyancy. The dreamy close-up was looped several times as the band vamped, a liberty that matched the drifting quality of the scored passages as they play in the films. By allowing excerpted scenes to flow one into another without narrative resolve, the band merely elaborated upon the suspension already present in Denis's films. Writing in 1927, the filmmaker and theorist Germaine Dulac urged on the Impressionist ideal of photogénie in just such terms: "Suggestion prolonged the action, thereby creating a domain of emotions which was vaster because no longer confined within particular actions."

Tindersticks followed Nénette floating with the unhurried prologue of 35 Shots of Rum, a scene in line with Dulac's description of prolonged action. The strings played a twinkling fragment in front of the black screen. As in the film, the image clicked into place with a Rhodes piano, the instrument's shapely figure fleshing out the conductor's view of the outer Métro lines. Staples smiled as he stumbled over his melodica part, but after a few measures the tune hit its mark: frothy but forlorn, like a melancholy carousel theme. The melody ascended and then drifted off as the sequence landed on Alex Descas smoking a cigarette in the night.

In most other films, this would be the moment we enter the narrative—but not in the Denis. Following her sequencing, Tindersticks launched immediately into the first variation of the "Train Montage," a nocturnal theme of guitar, melodica, and Rhodes that lightens with the addition of a flute. Staples insists that the compositions are not directly motivated by dramatic elements ("I just kind of recoil from that approach"), but one senses a sweet resolve in the way the two wind instruments are brought into alignment at roughly the same moment that Denis begins cutting between Lionel (Descas) and Joséphine (Mati Diop) on a subway car. Before they are father and daughter, they are melody. The music sees the pair home before finally clearing for the first dramatic scene, nearly seven minutes into the film. The prologue lasts longer than the narrative-rich "Night Shift" dance later in the film, and yet the air of reticence seems right for a story about a father and daughter's tender bond, which, effortless as it is, cannot make time stand still.

Tindersticks returned to 35 Shots of Rum later in the concert for a scene that neatly mirrors the opening. The conductor's view and melodica theme both draw to a halt as Lionel discovers the body of his former workmate René on the tracks. If this thread revealed the score's usefulness as connective tissue, elsewhere the Castro performance highlighted Tindersticks' emotive autonomy in the films. Particularly with Trouble Every Day, Denis's most graphic picture of the body in pain, the band's lush orchestration is a counterweight, placing the grotesque imagery of devouring lovers on a more abstract plane of yearning. The mood of the score is dissolute and bruised, to be sure, but the sound of harp, strings and muted horns is that of reverie rather than revulsion. According to Staples, "The seeds of that score were from our initial conversations with Claire before she even had a script. It started us thinking about it in a very romantic way. It's a gift really, writing music for a film with this kind of rub of ideas."

Staples wrote a lyrical ballad under the influence of this striking "rub" of violence and tenderness, and Denis in turn opened the film under its smoldering melody. "Trouble Every Day" was one of the Castro show's musical peaks and a moment for the band to enjoy the spotlight. They worked the tune's sinuous curves in front of a looped shot of two lovers kissing (it lasts only a few moments in the film). Staples stood wrapped around the microphone, his plaintive moan presagingthe movie's bloodcurdling yowls. The splendid restraint of the instrumental music during Trouble Every Day's most outlandish scenes was somewhat obscured by the truncated versions prepared for the performance. Inevitably, the concert format sacrificed some dynamic elements of the scores as they work in the original films. One also missed the rich interplay between the music and diegetic sound elements, as when a crackling fire licks at verging strings during the prologue of White Material.

On the other hand, the acoustic presence of the instruments (their silences too) enhanced the drama of this seesawing arrangement, composed with White Material's blighted landscape in mind. "For that film I realized the music wasn't really about the story," Staples explains. "It was coming from the earth...the earth and the pain that's within it." The dry, splintering score that resulted is arguably the most focused element of White Material. Its tonal complexities reflect Denis's sensitivity to thresholds, her delicate balancing of subdued lyricism and shuddering force. The opening snarl of violins immediately plunges the film into conflict during its flash-forward opening. Pocked with vital silence, the strings come together every few bars for a sinister three-note ascent. Eventually a mournful viola rises above this wreckage, striking a note of lament. Within seconds, in other words, the score is pulling in multiple directions at once. A later scene of child soldiers materializing out of a jungle is propelled by the "Children's Theme." which proved especially vigorous in concert.

Tindersticks eventually swept back through Nénette and Boni for a run at "Tiny Tears," the slow-burning ballad from their second album that accompanies Boni's blissful daydream of familial affection. The more conventional structure of scene meeting song evoked the many other visions of musical intoxication in Denis' films: "Night Shift" in 35 Shots of Rum; Denis Lavant's explosive discotheque finale in Beau Travail; Grégoire Colin lighting up the teenage bedroom in U.S. Go Home (Denis's most concentrated study of musical intervention); and so on. These are extraordinary moments of receptivity—for the characters, who are momentarily relinquished as bodies in space; and for the audience, who are completely absorbed by the power of song. No one even thinks of getting up as the end credits of Beau Travail roll.

The Tindersticks scores work differently, wrapping themselves around the hunger of Denis's films rather than satiating it. Nothing in the concert made this clearer than the "Black Mountain" passage excerpted from the final minutes of L'Intrus, Denis' most impressionistic narrative and her only film with a score composed solely by Staples. He wrote the jagged theme at a moment of uncertainty for the band. Violinist Dickon Hinchliffe, who wrote the Friday Night music and has since composed several other scores, had departed, leaving Staples to contemplate a solo career. Staples titled one of the two albums he released under his own name Leaving Songs, a fitting signpost for the existential journey of L'Intrus. The "Black Mountain" sequence is a single long take, with the hard reverb of Staples's guitar catching the swaying motion of a boat. The clouds part in the far reaches of the composition, and the new sun dazzles a sliver of water before the mountains. A muted trumpet sounds the distance and colors its longing.

As David Bordwell observes in his essay "The Musical Analogy" (from which the above Dulac quotation is drawn), music has long served as a preferred metaphor for filmmakers and theorists seeking a pure cinema. For those so inclined, "Music has become a model of how formal unity can check, control, and override representation." When Denis says the Nénette and Boni score "uninhibited" her, she's talking about such a swing away from dramatic realism—but there is a critical difference between practical and theoretical applications of the musical muse in cinema. What is sought in the "Black Mountain" sequence, finally, is not unity but sentience. The music allows the sublimity of the image to cast a shadow. Tindersticks didn't upstage this parity in concert; they seemed content instead to realize its dignity. "We've been making music for 20 years now," Staples said, "and we've still got this feeling of reaching for something. Working with Claire has helped us keep that feeling...We wanted to give it a weight." 


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soundtrack  |  Claire Denis  |  French cinema  |  Tindersticks


Max Goldberg is a regular contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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Author's Website: Text of Light