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PHILIPPE DE BROCA

HE LEFT HIS MARK ON A WHOLE GENERATION OF COMPOSERS.
HIS UNIQUE, UNFORGETTABLE WORKS HAVE TRAVELLED 
TO THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE WORLD…

Philippe de Broca on Georges Delerue 

 

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I 1959 - 68 

 

In 1959, when I was twenty-six, I was preparing to shoot my first full-length feature, Les Jeux de l’Amour (XX), and I was looking for a composer. By chance I came across a publicity film for Maggi, with (mad?) cows dancing the French Can-Can! I said to myself: “That’s what I need: it’s lively, spirited, and thunderously loud!” Henri Colpi, who’d directed the advertisement, told me that it was the work of a very promising youngster named Georges Delerue. I was out of luck: he’d deserted Paris for a holiday in the south.

I jumped on a train to track him down where he was on holiday, in Saint-Jeannet. I can see his little Provençal house now, but it had a piano. He opened the door himself, I was so young he thought I was a messenger! (Laughter.) We talked about the film, and I briefly told him what it was about, and mentioned the possibility of a waltz for the main title. He went over to the piano straight away: “A waltz like this?” That was it, he’d found one: his waltz had something perky about it, something elegant, with an aftertaste of sadness. From that day on, I couldn’t do without Georges, both the man and the composer.

 

Why a waltz? I’ve no idea… At twenty-six I was already an old sod, completely out of it! (Laughter.) I’ve got a terrible distrust of fashions, and I try to rely on references that last. On top of that, when you’ve got a composer like Georges Delerue, you don’t ask him to write a disco or hard rock piece! But it’s true, Georges was quite agreeable to a connivance between my own universe and the waltz: perpetual movement, sentiments dancing round in a circle where nothing gets caught up, everything detaches itself… Many themes he composed are built on rhythms in three: Le Roi de Coeur, Les tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine… not to mention my first three films with Jean-Pierre Cassel: Les Jeux de l’Amour, Le Farceur and L’Amant de Cinq Jours (XXX). Then Cartouche came along, which was offered to me by the producers from Films Ariane,

Alexandre Mnouchkine and Georges Dancigers. Cartouche marked a real transition in my career: I went from light, nouvelle vague gallantries in black and white to spectacular cinema, historical and adventure films. And there I had to fight hard with Mnouchkine, who strongly suggested Georges Van Parys or Paul Misraki. Two veterans against a youngster who, at the time, hadn’t yet proved himself in an epic register. I won in the end, I wore him out. Delerue made a magnificent success of the score for Cartouche, and from then on, Mnouchkine swore by him.

 

Physically, Delerue had a kind of broken side to him, with a large head and a very expressive face. He came from the north and looked like the Flemish peasants in Brueghel’s paintings. His modest origins didn’t mean his behaviour was “popular”; on the contrary, Georges was plain, but well-mannered and very warm. He had a grace that touched me a lot. Alexandre Mnouchkine often said: “Delerue is the happiest man I’ve met!” He was right: Georges liked to profit from his family, and music, good food, and not complicate his existence. He’d come from nothing, and knew how to appreciate everything that happened to him, a certain comfort that came with success. He really took life at face value. I’ve never heard him go on about his work, or explain it, analyse it. Georges preferred to write music, not hold forth on the subject.

 

When I started, we were right in the middle of the “Branquignols” era, whose shows were put to music by a composer whom Delerue greatly respected, Gérard Calvi. They were comic films with comic music, they totally assumed the burlesque side. I adored them… but not for myself. In my view, comedy is based on a funny way of seeing serious things. Georges completely understood that approach: he included in my films everything I couldn’t manage to do myself, probably out of modesty. And yet I always dreamed of telling tragic stories… although humour and derision almost always caught up with me, they hijacked me and took me hostage. Luckily, Georges was there to bring me back to more serious things. That’s where his genius lay: beneath a veneer of lightness, he made an unfathomable sadness palpable, an impression of human fragility, fragile things where everything is either lost or about to be lost…

Delerue’s vision, and his contribution, were everything I didn’t dare express myself, everything I’d withheld in the scenario or in the shooting. If you want a caricature, I was casualness and superficiality, and he was depth. In a comedy like Le Diable par la Queue, his music adds a staggering dimension of tenderness, nostalgia… in a slow waltz, for piano and strings, portrayed onscreen by Jeanne’s character (Clotilde Joanno.) That theme is the reason why Yves Montand falls for her: all of a sudden he stops playing the clown and tells her the story of his life, a pathetic little crook. When a woman plays that waltz for you, you can’t do anything but fall in love! That theme for Jeanne is probably one of my favourite Delerue compositions… I’d love it to be played at my funeral! (Laughter.)

 

In Diable, I also liked the opening title, a clever pastiche of court-music. It ought to be played behind the fountains in Versailles… On the screen, you can see a decrepit stately home, with a roof that leaks like a sieve, and Jean Rochefort has to juggle with the chamber-pots. That’s another way of looking at fountains! The effect of this shift is that the music magnifies the derisory aspect of this family of aristocratic suckers in their dingy manor…

 

In L’Homme de Rio or Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine I carried around the idea of a piece of music that would be quick to play on the suspense or the chase. When you get involved with caricatures, you have to be a believer, otherwise you sink into a sneering parody. Delerue’s music makes you understand that conventional baddies are still baddies. You can laugh, of course, but you still have to be afraid. In the Chinois en Chine, I like the title-theme, a tasty mix between the French waltz and the mysteries of the Orient…

Frankly, I prefer the music to the film! (Laughter.) I know children loved it, but it’s an outrageous pastiche, a super-Barnum cartoon: too many pirouettes, too extravagant, too much insistent fantasy. My speciality isn’t all stunts and fat clowns, it’s more of a tightrope walker’s way of treating things… In reaction to that, I did Le Roi de Coeur the year after, a tragic farce that was totally baroque: the story of a little, northern town in the 14-18 war, deserted by its inhabitants only to be invaded by inmates from the local asylum… the film was a huge flop… Perhaps I messed it up… Whatever, I’d asked Georges to listen to Expressionist music a bit, Kurt Weill. He came up with a beautiful, fragile waltz for me that was unhinged, coming completely apart in the dissonances. Like a music box at the wrong speed… It’s a mixture of cracks, nostalgia, a little, inner merry-go-round…

 

I haven’t written a screenplay for years without listening to Bach’s Mass in B, or a Beethoven symphony, really… From a playwright’s point of view, I find their structure fascinating. I love how Beethoven discreetly states the theme at the beginning of a symphony, then conjures it away, brings it back, develops it in a minor or a major key, andante or presto. In construction terms, I learn enormously from Bach or Beethoven… In films, music also helps me with the structure. Georges’ contribution wasn’t just musical, he helped the scenario just as much. The end of Cartouche is a good example: Venus (Claudia Cardinale) has just died, and Cartouche puts her body inside a coach which he pushes into a lake at night… With the shots of the golden coach slipping into the deep water, Georges has the orchestra pick up the theme of Vénus et Cartouche, but in a minor key, over a slow, almost funereal rhythm… It’s like an evocation of happy times, a way of intensifying the recollection of Venus in Cartouche’s memory. It’s terribly vibrant; it brings tears to your eyes…

 

Listening to all these pieces of music again brings back pictures of Georges in the studio: Davout, of course, but also the Salle Wagram, which was used for boxing matches at weekends. Delerue was very enthusiastic, saying “The acoustics are really something!” while conducting the orchestra from inside the ring! (laughter.) I took advantage of these sessions to observe the musicians’ world, which always fascinated me: they’d play Delerue in a state of grace, the beauty of their art, but as soon as the take was over, they’d start chattering about the races, Social Security, their lunch: “Shit, the dressing on the celery’s given me heartburn!” (Laughter!) I love that, the way the sublime telescopes into the trivial. The soloists were always from the Paris Opera, and I’d noticed one, a little old lady hidden behind a harp: it was the great Lily Laskine. Georges loved her, and used her almost systematically, even if she had problems seeing in the end. One day, as a tribute, I brought some champagne to the studio. We raised our glasses at the end of the session; Lily drank four glasses before teetering off, and she whispered in my ear: “I haven’t got my strings to stop me falling over!” (Laughter.)

 

I’ve really kept a magic souvenir of those recordings: I moved around a lot between the cabin and the room, and I stood in a corner to watch Georges waving his long arms in that immense studio. He regularly turned to me with a quizzical look: “That OK for you, Philippe?” I had the feeling then that everything had been set up just for my own pleasure. As if Delerue was one of the King’s artisans, with the supreme goal of keeping him happy. I’m very feudal, I adore those situations! (Laughter.) And Georges put so much energy, so much involvement into conducting the musicians, and bringing out the music he had in his head… When all that emotion, carried by just one man, was married to my pictures, I had goose pimples. That’s all the magic of music in the cinema: waves of lyricism that carry two hams away saying: “I love you” on a monitor screen… That’s why Delerue was so dear to me: among the ingredients of a film, his music expressed the depths of the soul more than others did.

 

 

 

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I 1969 - 88 

 

For ten years, from the Jeux de l’Amour to the Caprices de Marie, my films were cowritten by Daniel Boulanger and set to music by Georges Delerue. It was like the result of a symbiosis à trois… I was in the middle, framed by two authors who intervened at the extremities of the chain.  I used to think and still do that they had more talent than I did! (laughter.) Boulanger in particular both fascinated and terrified me: I thought he was intellectually more original, more inventive than I was. I was influenced by his personality, by his feeling for the baroque, his humorous or poetical finds. I accepted what he found because he dominated me.

That’s the whole drama of my life: I have a sense of greatness, but not the genius that goes with it. I need collaborators to pull me along… As for Georges, when the film was over he brought me back to the essential, to what I wanted to express: life, with its drollness, its abnegations, its little despairs or great hopes, all of them wrapped in lightness… for they were above all comedies, which is either courtesy or cowardice on my part.

 

The beginning of the Seventies marked the end of our trio. After Les Caprices de Marie I didn’t work with Boulanger again… except for Chouans! In 1987, which was the conclusion to an old project I’d worked on years earlier. As for Georges, our collaboration was to continue, but in a more discontinuous fashion. Curiously enough, my first film without Boulanger was also my first film without Georges: La Poudre d’Escampette, written by Jean-Loup Dabadie in 1970. After eight feature films, I had no scruples about abandoning my friend Delerue for a moment. It was infidelity, not treason. Georges worked all the time, for loads of other directors… At the beginning, I naively thought that we’d enjoy working on our next film together even more… In reality, it was rather the opposite that happened. You loosen the ties, and you can’t find them exactly the same way again… When the trio got together again for Chouans!, it was already too late… I never worked with Boulanger again, I completely lost sight of him, and I never saw Georges again before he left us four years later… Even if I’ve been orphaned by both of them, I don’t suffer so much from the absence of Delerue: he’s no longer with us. But it would only take a call from Boulanger… (Silence.)

 

Going back to La Poudre d’Escampette, I wanted Jean Wiener to do the music. There was a funny idea to explore there: I thought my three characters, lost in Lybia in 1943, should hear an accordion, a Parisian piano, zazou jazz in the depths of the desert… And I wanted this music to be written by a composer who was historically linked to the period in question. Hence Jean Wiener. But it all went badly wrong, especially during the recording: he hadn’t prepared a thing, he just began improvising at the piano while his arranger beavered away in a corner… The result didn’t look much like anything. I was stunned, Alexandre Mnouchkine even more. Wiener gave me the impression of someone very old, rather tired, not involved. Not that it took anything away from the prestige of his great scores. It was just that I arrived too late… I had no choice but to let him go; he must have hated me for it. I called dear old Delerue to the rescue, to start all over again, and Georges’ answer was: “Sorry, Philippe, but I can’t come in after Jean!” It was handsome proof of his honesty: he liked Wiener a lot, from a musical, human and political standpoint. Had they been fellow travellers in the Communist party? I don’t know… (Laughter.) In the end it was Michel Legrand who came to my rescue. But I’ll remember that painful session with Wiener to the end of my days… as it were a kind of punishment for my infidelity.

 

As a result, Georges was back as soon as I did my next film, Chère Louise, with Jeanne Moreau, a drama about solitude written by Dabadie: the story of an impossible love-affair between a forty year-old spinster and a young man. I don’t like the film that much, I prefer the music, especially the main theme for piano and strings. I overdid it, too, I used it everywhere, including flights of swans over the lake in Annecy. It’s almost become formalism… With Chère Louise I wasn’t in my universe. Anyway, I’m less comfortable with frontally serious or dramatic subjects. That also goes for Chouans!, a fresco on the heartbreak of the French Revolution… The way I work is rather to tell superficial or whimsical stories which, somewhere along the way, cast a sidelong glance at tragedy. Not the reverse. This didn’t stop Delerue making a success of the music for my “serious” films. The score for Chouans! Lacks neither breath nor scope… For my comedies, he always had inspiration that showed great quality, whether they were a mess (Julie Pot-de-Colle), semi-successes (L’Incorrigible) or hits (Tendre Poulet).

 

There was also Le Cavaleur, one of my favourite films, where Rochefort plays a concert pianist who chases women, his own life, even passing time. Georges was my musical advisor for that film, by showing me one of Beethoven’s piano concertos: “You’ll see, it corresponds to the movement of the film and the character!” Even so, we hesitated over the famous concerto and a piece of original music for the final sequence. Invoking reasons of homogeneity, Delerue convinced me to choose… Beethoven! Which he specially arranged himself, and conducted for the film. There, at least, he wasn’t being unfaithful to one of his competitors! (Laughter.) Le Cavaleur must have been the last film we worked on before his American exile… He was earning money, and he had an Oscar in his pocket, so he went to live in Los Angeles in 1981. What long way he’d come since 1959! When I first met him he was going through some lean times, living in two rooms in Pigalle, not far from the prostitutes. His piano took up all the space: the keyboard was in the first room, the baby grand in the second! (Laughter.) Twenty years later, there he was, enthroned in Hollywood… That was Georges’ paradox: a boy from Roubaix with grandfathers who were miners, a Communist Party sympathiser who finds himself installed in th very symbol of American capitalism. Where he lived very happily, too… If I’d been a success in the United States, maybe I’d have ended up like Georges, beside a swimming-pool in California!

 

Georges and I didn’t break up, we just gradually moved apart. I lived in Paris, and he lived in Los Angeles… each of us had his own life, and we were separated by thousands of miles… But we did get together again for two films, L’Africain and Chouans! For the first one, Georges came back to France: so we got back to our old habits. What pleased me most was to go out to his home near the lake in Enghien, and listen to him playing me different things in his drawing-room with all its fake Louis XIII furniture. I said to him: “I’d like an overture that flows like a great African river, vast and muddy and beyond the point of no return…”

He’d sit down at his piano and there, I could see his music… With Chouans!, on the other hand, I hated the way we worked. Everything happened by telephone, between Paris and Los Angeles: “Here, I’ve got a tune, take a listen!” And over the telephone I could hear this nasal piano from the other side of the earth, overdubbed with a broken voice singing out of tune. Out of respect for our old complicity, I trusted him entirely, and only really discovered the result once I was in the Davout studio on the day we recorded. The music was absolutely wonderful… But I never took any pleasure in its conception. From then on, I didn’t contact Georges any more for my next films. I was unhappy over our friendship and my need for him, he was far away, and we had words… On top of that, composing for a French film was a strange exercise for him, almost a step back.

It irritated him to have to work with our methods again, our resources. I think he felt he was moving backwards… In his behaviour I thought I saw a certain exasperation with French musicians, their “no fuss” side, nice enough but no discipline. Georges was used to the ultra-professionalism of Hollywood orchestras, the luxury of the music budgets allocated by Fox or Paramount. So, obviously… When you live in a mansion, it’s hard to go back to a maid’s room, even if it does have all your memories in it. So Chouans! was our last rendezvous: we still spoke, but never saw each other again.

 

Georges passed away in March, 1992. In the middle of the night, at around three in the morning, a radio journalist called me for an interview. What elegance! Just like that, he wanted my feelings after telling me a brother had died… A few weeks later I was asked to organised a fireworks-display at the Vaux-de-Cernay, a Château built by the Rothschilds on the site of a Roman Abbey. As a tribute to Georges, I decided to do it with his music, actually the music for Chouans! and Dien Bien Phu, my friend Schoendoerffer’s film, with its famous Concerto de l’Adieu. I worked on it for a month with the Ruggieris, whose ancestor had been in charge of the Royal Fireworks for Louis XIV. It’s very complicated: you have to time the delay between the moment you set fire to them and the moment they explode… And you have to do it without losing the synchronisation with the music. On the night, I was in a state of extreme tension and emotion. Georges’ widow, Colette, was there, and I had the impression she was in tears, like I was.

 

The fireworks display began, and everyone fell silent, enthralled. I sent the Abbey, the Château and the forest up in flames. All those lights went up into the sky, where Georges had come from. It all resembled life and the cinema: an ephemeral, costly show, necessary and useless. Like a mirage that exists for just a few minutes… and all that remains is the memory of it retained by the spectators who were there that night. It was a farewell, my farewell, to Georges Delerue.

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