Shortly after completing my entry for the Favourite Movie Music meme, which included one song by Tindersticks and two songs used in Claire Denis films, I was excited to hear about the imminent release of Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009, a collection which brings together the six soundtracks that members of Tindersticks have produced for Denis over the past fifteen years. The collaboration between the French director and the British band has proved to be one of the most fruitful in contemporary cinema, resulting in some extraordinary fusions of sound and image. The partnership began when Denis approached the group about working on the soundtrack to Nénette et Boni in 1996, after listening to their second album while scripting the film. Tindersticks have gone on to provide scores for Trouble Every Day (2001), 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum) (2008) and White Material (2009), while Stuart Staples and Dickon Hinchliffe have worked solo on the scores for L’Intrus (The Intruder) (2004) and Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (2002). This deluxe box set features over three hours of music from the films, while the lavishly presented booklet includes colour film stills and an essay by Michael Hill that assesses the collaboration in depth. It’s an absolute must for fans of the band, fans of Denis and, indeed, for anyone interested in the art of the soundtrack.
“Approaching each film has always asked us to step into the unknown, to stretch ourselves and do things we didn’t think we were able,” Staples has said. “And in the end we always feel changed in some way.” Interestingly, that description pretty much sums up the experience of watching Denis’s cinema, which similarly requires viewers to stretch themselves and, often, to step into the unknown. Elliptical, fragmentary, sometimes opaque to the point of obscurity, Denis’s films have the resonance and mystery of dreams. Focusing upon issues of otherness, displacement and post-colonial anxiety, her films are endlessly re-watchable, works that yield up fresh possible meanings with every viewing, and that thrive on sensation, tactility, mood and atmosphere. In their attention to pace, ambience and rhythm, her films feel like music already, just as Tindersticks’s atmospheric, brooding compositions have very often had a cinematic dimension.
Listening to the soundtracks, it quickly becomes apparent just how integral a part of the overwhelming sensory experience of Denis’s cinema Tindersticks’s music has been. What’s also remarkable is the sheer diversity of the band’s approaches to these scores. Always sensitive to the different qualities of the films’ narratives, their music dynamically and unpredictably fuses elements of jazz and blues, soul, rock, folk and chamber music, and moves from intimacy to expansiveness with the fluidity with which the films themselves move from close-up to long-shot.
Thus the exquisite jazzy shuffle of “Rumba” from Nénette et Boni and the inviting gentle melodicas of “Opening” from 35 Shots of Rum perfectly capture the warmth and intimacy of these family-centred domestic dramas, just as the dissonant, twitchy electric guitar work and woozy trumpet of Staples’s score for The Intruder suit the highly abstract contours of a film in which, as Denis states, “everything is broken,” from the narrative structure to the protagonist’s heart.
It’s precisely this diversity of approach that makes Claire Denis Film Scores such a rich and engrossing experience. Listeners will of course have their own favourite moments across the five discs but worth highlighting is Hinchliffe’s stunning work for Vendredi Soir, all plucked strings and floating cadences, and the wonderfully seductive and portentous sweep of “Trouble Every Day,” the opening song to Denis’s idiosyncratic horror film, which is, rather regrettably, one of just two songs on the collection that showcase Staples’s commanding vocals. Best of all, perhaps, is the band’s haunting score for Denis’s most recent film White Material which employs harmonium, electric guitar, flute, violin and drums to devastating effect.
The primary question about soundtrack albums, of course, is whether the music is strong enough to survive on its own, without the images for which it was created. The answer, in this case, is an emphatic yes. Music in Denis’s films is much more than accompaniment: it’s protagonist, presence, even scene-stealer at times. And as deeply interwoven into the fabric of her films as Tindersticks’s work is, it's more than strong enough to stand alone, providing an intense and immersive emotional experience in its own right. To listen to these CDs, in short, is to be carried back into the landscapes of each of these extraordinary films - and far beyond. Magnifique.
The box set is avaliable through Constellation Records.
Reviewed for PopMatters.