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When Ludovic Bource agreed to compose music for a feature film with no dialogue, he knew he would have his work cut out for him. The so-called “silent” films of yesteryear are in fact dominated by rich, dramatic scores; syrupy strings and bombastic brass giving voice to the situations and sentiments the actors cannot express in words. The music stands in place of a narrator, commenting on and fuelling the action with hardly a moment’s respite from the orchestral onslaught. The composer doesn’t get a break.
The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s new silent film about the dying art of silent film in the 1920s, harks back to the era both visually and musically. Since its triumphant premiere at the Cannes Festival last year, this unusual production has been the talk of the town, and looks set to take its place among the classics it emulates.
Bource, a longtime collaborator of director Michel Hazanavicius, knew it would be “a very risky project.
"Michel spoke to me many years ago about the idea of making a silent period piece. I didn’t expect him to bring it to life; it was the opposite of the other films we had worked on together.”
It also required twice the amount of music he had supplied for Hazanavicius’s previous OSS movies. Even though it was a daunting prospect, Bource seized on “the opportunity to express truly the emotional state of the principal characters. It was a real challenge and a great, great adventure – just what a composer needs.”
Speaking over the phone in thickly accented English, the 41-year-old describes working on music for film in poetic, typically Gallic style: “a strange chemical process.” But it was also a lot of hard work. He responded quickly to Hazanavicius’s intricately detailed storyboards, and then to the first rushes as shooting got underway. A classically trained pianist with jazz leanings, Bource worked with a team of orchestrators to create the lush score, which flits from heady romanticism to breezy nostalgia and big-band exuberance. He also supervised the rehearsals and a week of recording sessions with the 80-piece Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra in Brussels.
For the protagonist, fictional silent film actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), Bource had to come up with themes that encompassed his journey from on-top-of-the-world matinee idol suavity to the depths of despair (the Suicide theme is dedicated enigmatically to “03.29.1967” – Hazanavicus’s date of birth). Valentin’s love interest and rival Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), on the other hand, experiences a meteoric rise in the brave new world of “talkies” that transforms her from ingénue extra into a bona fide celebrity clad head to toe in furs. Bource says he wanted to emphasise “fragility, emotional simplicity and innocence” of the characters, and he does just that in the couple’s waltz theme for solo piano.
Bource and Hazanavicius immersed themselves in cinema of the 1920s and ‘30s for inspiration: the composer cites Korngold as “the real genius of film music of the last century”, while Franz Waxman’s score for Sunset Boulevard was a clear favourite for the director. Bource sees his work not as a pastiche of these sources, but as a “declaration of love to the great composers of Hollywood films”.
But one iconic siren of the silver screen calls it “rape”, not love. Kim Novak, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, has publicly denounced the use of a quotation from the Bernard Herrmann score for the 1958 psychological thriller in The Artist. “I want to report a rape”, she wrote in Variety. “I feel as if my body – or, at least my body of work – has been violated by the movie The Artist."
Novak added, “It is morally wrong for the artistry of our industry to use and abuse famous pieces of work to gain attention and applause for other than what they were intended.”
But Bource stands by the homage. “We used a temp track from Vertigo in the test screening. I knew it would be impossible to surpass it. For me it’s a fantastic honour to pay tribute to the master Bernard Hermann.”
And as the composer points out, most film scores, including his own, are indebted to any number of classical symphonic works. Bource also drew on Brahms’s Sapphic Ode for the poignant theme Comme une Rosée de Larmes (The Dew of Tears), which Hazanavicius frequently played on set to get actors in the mood.
“Ravel and Debussy are inspirational to me”, Bource adds. “If you want to understand the American composers of the golden age you must know and analyse European composers like Richard Strauss, Mahler and Sibelius.” He says the gutsy final dance sequence owes much to Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Gershwin.
With so many masterpieces as touchstones, it’s no wonder Bource is up for an Oscar for Best Original Score (one of 10 nominations for The Artist), having won a BAFTA, Golden Globe ("I'm sorry, I'm French!" he apologised sheepishly for his broken English as he collected the award) and now the coveted Oscar. Although “honoured” by these official accolades, he insists that he "needed just one prize to celebrate my work, and that is the recognition of my colleagues and the musicians.”
The hype isn’t dying down: Bource hints at the possibility of The Artist being screened with live accompaniment by orchestras around the world, in tours that may include Australia. With Sydney Symphony having recently performed the complete score of Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis in this format, it seems silent cinema has found its voice again.