Academy Award winning composer, Alexandre DesplatTWITTER/ALANTURINGYEAR

There is only one way to put it: I am obsessed with Alexandre Desplat. I listen to his Little Women score when I study; The Imitation Game when I cry; The Grand Budapest Hotel to lift my spirits. And of course, I remember this iconic line from his 2014 Oscar acceptance speech: “Wes [Anderson], you are a genius. This is good.”

This quote reminds me that Desplat is composing for film: collaborating with the director to create a score that is not just great music in its own right, but something that elevates the movie itself. It is here that Desplat excels. Like a chameleon, he shifts and adapts, constantly transforming his style to fit the director’s needs. Yet paradoxically, regardless of genre, budget, or subject, Desplat is nevertheless able to inject earnestness that is uniquely his, making the score an active part of the storytelling process.

Polyjuice Potion

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson) share a quiet moment at Godric's HollowTWITTER/WIZARDINGWORLD

Desplat’s most mainstream work has been on parts one and two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010/2011). In these scores we observe his masterful ability to complement the visuals created by the director. In the final films, the Harry Potter series shifts from wide-eyed wonder to bleak grimness as director David Yates bathes the screen in blacks and blue-greys. Desplat elevates this direction by infusing his score with a parallel somberness and a sensation of ever-present danger.

“Regardless of genre, budget, or subject, Desplat is nevertheless able to inject earnestness that is uniquely his, making the score an active part of the storytelling process.”

Notably, when Harry and Hermione visit the grave of Harry’s parents, the intimate scene is matched by the mournful Godric’s Hollow Graveyard, dominated by strings and woodwinds. When Hermione places roses at the grave, the music develops a gentle, hopeful quality. However, this brief moment of beauty vanishes as Hermione observes: “There’s someone watching us.” The score becomes tense, uneasy. Like the ominous shot of the watcher bathed in shadow, viewing from afar, the score’s final sinister quality leaves the audience anxious for the danger that lies ahead.

A Different Equation

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014)TWITTER/CINEMARTISTRY

Desplat’s finest work is showcased in an independent film. Here, he embraces his tenet for a great soundtrack: “It’s meant to follow the psychology of the characters…to bring the invisible, not the visible.” This philosophy is exemplified in his score for The Imitation Game. Directed by Morten Tyldum and depicting the life of codebreaker Alan Turing, The Imitation Game asks, as Alan puts it: “Am I a person? Am I a machine?”

“As both man and music are made bare and vulnerable, Desplat and Tyldum unite sound and story to prove that Alan is completely, tragically human.”

Initially it appears that Alan is a machine: arrogant and dismissive, he hurts all those he comes across, a characterization that Desplat complements through repetitive arpeggios evoking both Alan’s coldness and the technology that enthralls him. However, Desplat suggests there is more to this distant man through Alan’s theme: tender and aching, piercing through the mechanical phrases. This humanity is unveiled as the audience watches Alan become a kinder individual, bearing witness to the inner conflicts that plague him. Thus, in the heartrending penultimate scene where a broken Alan laments his loneliness, the score sheds all mechanical motifs and responds to the sorrow of the moment with a simple piano rendition of Alan’s theme. As both man and music are made bare and vulnerable, Desplat and Tyldum unite sound and story to prove that Alan is completely, tragically human.

The Mystical Union

It would not be a discussion of Desplat without mentioning his collaborations with Wes Anderson. When composing for Anderson, Desplat perfectly balances his ability to match the director’s vision and introduce his own musical complexity, the pinnacle of this being The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here, Anderson takes off with a candy-coloured palette, extensive symmetrical shots, and a story as zany as it is dark.

The pastel-infused visuals of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel are as striking as Desplat's accompanying scoreTWITTER/ONEPERFECTSHOT

Meanwhile, Desplat composes everything from Alpine overtures to Gregorian chants and balalaika solos – a score that, like the film itself, is quirky and endlessly enchanting. Yet, like Anderson, Desplat doesn’t let aesthetic detract from character — The Grand Budapest Hotel is at its core about the fall of an idealised world, and Desplat embraces this. For example, Mr. Moustafa, the hotel’s owner, is described as cheerful, but when the narrator mentions his “perceptible air of sadness” and the camera slowly dollies into a close-up of Moustafa’s face, the music follows suit, becoming a faded reflection of the exuberant themes seen elsewhere. Even at his most exaggerated, Desplat holds firmly onto his core philosophy, taking the seemingly superficial and injecting it with the profound.

Finale

Desplat visited the iconic Abbey Road Studios in 2018 to record the score for KurskTWITTER/ABBEYROAD

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If the best film composers are masters of paradox, simultaneously collaborative and individualistic, then Desplat represents the pinnacle of this idea. From blockbusters to biopics to auteur classics, Desplat is dedicated to portraying the complexity of story and character, bringing depth and beauty to every film on which he works. Consequently, when the credits start to roll and Desplat’s name appears on screen, his perfect marriage of music, story, and visuals still dancing in my head, I cannot help but think: Desplat, you’re a genius. This is good.