Au revoir, Maurice Jarre

One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear — Maurice Jarre

Maurice Jarre, who died yesterday, was one of the great composers of film music, a man whose work lives in your mind even if you’ve never heard of him. He was French, born in 1924, and turned to film after several years as director of the Théâtre National Populaire.

Like many film composers, his best work came from close collaborations with directors, working on a number of their films. The first of these was Georges Franju, whose strange unsettling movies gain much of their power from Jarre’s work, particularly his masterpiece, Eyes Without a FaceBut his most famous collaboration, of course, was with David Lean, scoring Dr Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, A Passage to India and Lawrence of Arabia. Jarre’s music set the tone for Lean’s great epics, the scale of his melodies matching Lean’s ambition — and vanity.

Later in his life he found another close collaboration, this time with the brilliant Peter Weir, working on The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society and Fearless. He also continued to experiment with different styles of orchestration, both traditional and electronic, in scores as varied as Jacob’s Ladder, Gorillas in the Mist and No Way Out.

But the best tribute to the man is his music. So turn up your speakers and enjoy Jarre himself conducting this selection from Lawrence of Arabia:


Fantasy and reality: Eyes Without a Face


George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is one of the most beautiful and unsettling movies ever made. Its story is pure pulp: when Dr Genessier, a successful surgeon, has a car accident, in which his daughter Christiane’s face is irreparably damaged, he kidnaps and kills a series of young women in the hope of successfully grafting one of their faces onto hers, restoring her original beauty. It’s also pretty gruesome: the camera (unlike the audience) never flinches as the professor carefully cuts away the entire face of one unfortunate candidate, leaving only her eyes intact.

But what makes the film so powerful is its blend of the everyday and the poetic, establishing a world that’s both thoroughly quotidian and mesmerically dreamlike. The kidnaps, for example, are carried out by Genessier’s assistant Louise, who selects her victims from the cafes and cinemas of Paris. The morgue, where Genessier fakes his daughter’s death, feels absolutely real. Genessier himself, however, lives in a mist-wreathed chateau outside town, where Christiane (Edith Scob) weeps behind her exquisite, blank-faced mask, while Maurice Jarre’s score is pure demented fairytale, full of carousel waltzes and menacing strings. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho crossed with Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.

This combination of the familiar and the fantastic denies us any sense of safety: by taking us outside the usual structures of genre, Franju never allows us to become complacent. The film overturns almost every traditional role: the doctor is a killer, the police obstruct justice, dogs turn on their owner, and beauty is a curse. But these roles, too, are complex. Genessier is not some B movie monster: despite his crimes, he is a compassionate doctor and a guilt-stricken father. Christiane is certainly a victim, but she is also, for much of the film, a complicit one. Nor is the audience innocent: we want to see the horror that lurks beneath Christiane’s mask. But equally, we want her to be happy — but at what cost? Must the beauty also be the beast?

So what is Eyes Without a Face: horror film? fairy tale? fable? It has elements of all of these. Franju himself called it “… an anguish film. It’s a quieter mood than horror, something more subjacent, more internal, more penetrating”. Most horror movies are collective: we watch, we jump, we scream, we are released into the world again, the mysteries resolved. Eyes Without a Face, on the other hand, is personal and intimate, as much a seduction as a shock. And it maintains its mystery: it’s closest, perhaps, to films like Celine and Julie Go Boating or Mulholland Dr. It creeps into your subconscious and nests there: a dream from which, despite the terror, you’re not quite sure you want to wake.

UPDATE: There’s an interesting piece about the film over at David Cairns’ blog Shadowplay.