‘Birth’ composer adds elegiac note to drama

Visionaries: Alexandre Desplat

If composer Alexandre Desplat’s work on “Girl With a Pearl Earring” didn’t persuade cineastes of his music’s quiet intensity, then his score for Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” surely should.

Desplat likens “Birth” to a fairy tale, with Nicole Kidman — as an Upper East Side widow who is confronted by the possibility that a 10-year-old boy is her dead husband reincarnated — as the princess. “The music keeps the focus on her,” he says, “trying to share the love and sorrow and the education that’s there.”

The Christian Science Monitor described the movie as “steeped in brooding atmosphere” thanks to its “hugely imaginative visual style and creative use of music, sound and silence.” The New York Times called it a “delicate chamber piece with the large, troubled heart of an opera.”

Though only 43, the Parisian-born Desplat has already written music for 80 titles, 50 of them features. How can someone so prolific be so little known? Desplat himself wonders about that, though he readily acknowledges that his nearly exclusive commitment to French projects hasn’t helped his Q rating in America.

But that’s starting to change, and upcoming ventures like “The Upside of Anger,” with Joan Allen and Kevin Costner, and the Bruce Willis starrer “Hostage,” both slated for release in 2005, will likely enlarge Desplat’s circle of admirers. “I hope so,” he says, via phone from his home in Paris. “I was unknown in Hollywood, but I hope they will remember my name now.”

Desplat gained some notice in the U.S. back in 2000, with his score to “The Luzhin Defence,” a quirky adaptation of a Nabokov novel. Even then, discerning ears could hear a distinctive voice, one seemingly more comfortable with the subtle remark than the grand statement.

That talent was refined in “Girl,” with the composer conjuring a vanished world through a patina of uncanny warmth. Director Peter Webber had asked the composer to steer clear of faux Baroque or choral music. “But once we found the main colors,” says Desplat, “it was very quick.”

“Birth,” he says, “was more dangerous.” Desplat sees the film as love story, despite its supernatural elements. “It’s mainly about sorrow and the quest for pure love. The real story is lost love.”

Yet like the film as a whole, Desplat’s score introduces puzzles. Those listening closely will hear the main theme manipulated throughout. “Every single element is in the opening,” says Desplat. “But it will be played slower or faster or in a different key or upside down. The trumpet in the opening comes back in the apartment. And the waltz in the end credits is also in the opening and at the party.”

Desplat’s intricate approach extends to the blending of sounds. To keep the score from sounding too naive, he used electronic instruments. “It gives a vague trembling,” he says, “but you only notice it when it stops.”

Such touches help make Desplat’s score memorably specific. “That’s why the music is so desperate,” he says. “It’s nothing to do with reincarnation. That’s just a trigger for the real story.”

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