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Original score to the 2012 motion picture composed by Academy Award winner Rachel Portman. Based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami is an erotically charged tale of ambition, power, and seduction that chronicles the rise of penniless ex-soldier Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson The Twilight Saga, Remember Me) from poverty up through the echelons of the 1890s Parisian "beau monde" elite. Using his wits and powers of seduction, Duroy moves from a prostitute's embrace to passionate trysts with wealthy beauties who inhabit a world where sex is power and celebrity an obsession, and where politics and media jostle for influence. Also starring Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci and Colm Meaney. Bel Ami is a timeless epic with a modern twist a Dangerous Liaisons for a new generation.
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Portman, of course, is the Oscar-winning composer of such similar period romances as Emma and The Duchess. This is familiar territory for her. The name Lakshman Joseph de Saram, however, is likely to be wholly unfamiliar to film music fans. He is a composer from Sri Lanka who attended the Manhattan School of Music, founded the Chamber Music Society of Colombo in his home country, and is now one of the leading musical lights of the Tamil-language film industry, with several high profile scores to his name. He grew up surrounded by western classical music and film scores, professing a personal admiration for everyone from Shostakovich to Ennio Morricone, and became attached to Bel Ami through producer Uberto Pasolini - Rachel Portman's husband - who wrote and directed the Tamil film Machan in 2008, which Lakshman scored. It seems rather incongruous that a composer from Sri Lanka would be chosen to score a film set in 18th century France, but much like his contemporary A. R. Rahman, Lakshman is not a stereotypical "Indian Subcontinent" composer: there are no sitars to be found here. Instead, both Portman and Lakshman inhabit a completely classical world, providing the film with light, graceful, elegant orchestral music that perfectly captures the world Duroy inhabits, and the women he woos.
The whole score is orchestral, with heavy emphasis on strings, and with a pervading emotional aspect that can best be described as `tragic romance', although there are moments of lightness and classical pastiche to be heard too, ensuring that the score never becomes overly-saturated with dense emotion. Portman's signature contribution is the main theme, heard in the opening track "Bel Ami", and thereafter in cues such as "Poverty", "She Won't Be a Widow for Long", "Head of Gossip/La Vie Française" and "Georges Elopes With Suzanne". It's a driving, quite powerful piece, with a staccato string undercurrent, accentuated with low-register woodwinds, and overlaid with a dance-like violin figure that is thoroughly beautiful. It's a prototypical Portman piece, clearly built around similar rhythms and meters as several of her other famous themes, but somehow Bel Ami seems more forceful and bold than much of her earlier work, which is very pleasing.
Elsewhere, the elegant dance in "Whose Arms Are These?" has a touch of comedy about it, with pizzicato violins and a waltz-like beat in the woodwinds, giving the audience a nod and a wink, seemingly treating Duroy's sexual conquests as a bit of light-hearted scandal. Conversely, some cues drip with tragedy and even occasional anger, such as the aforementioned "She Won't Be a Widow for Long", "A Fool", "You Disgust Me" and especially the lachrymose "Charles Dies", which contains a piano and oboe duet that is most effectively - and attractively - downbeat. Later, the unexpectedly dark "Betrayal/Virginie Submits" has a down-in-the-depths performance of the main theme for the woodwinds that is surprisingly sinister. In each of these more tragic cues, Portman plays around with fragments of the main theme, never fully restating the melody, but instead shifting around three or four notes here and there, as if insinuating that, because Duroy's life is broken, the melody that accompanies him is too.
Lakshman's contributions are not as thematically-oriented as Portman's, and instead breathe life into the rest of the score, moving in and around Portman's thematic core through several standalone cues, some of which are breathtakingly lovely. Several of his cues contain fragile violin solos (understandably, as Lakshman is himself is a violinist), and on the whole he tends to score the lighter, more romantic and upbeat aspects of the score, in contrast to Portman's more dramatic efforts. Cues such as "Love Nest" have a wry, sprightly feel, with a twinkle in their proverbial eye, capturing the effortless charm with which Duroy seduces the woman around him. Others, such as the lovely "A More Memorable Name", feature mischievous pizzicatos accompanied sardonic woodwind accents that gently evoke a playful mood. Elsewhere, the old-fashioned pair "La Vie Française/Celebration" and "Rousset's Party" have an über-classical feel, as though they could have been written during the time period, for the in-house string quartet of an Imperial palace.
The theme in "Clotilde", for Christina Ricci's character, is stunning: an idyllic, romantic piano, string and woodwind combination that speaks of innocence, quiet beauty, and gentle romance, and is probably the best cue on the album. Later, the theme for Uma Thurman's character, "Madeleine", while not quite as wholesome as Clotilde's, maintains an overarching characteristic of powerful romantic love, achieved through yet another beautiful setting for strings and woodwinds. That's not to say that all of Lakshman's music is happy classical pastiche: on the contrary, "Beggar/Charles is Dying" and "The Man I Have Lost" contain some appropriately morose textures, often with a moody piano element at its core. It speaks much of Lakshman's talent that, despite his relative inexperience in film music terms, he has the dramatic sensibility to capture an array of emotional contexts.
Everything comes back to the main theme in the conclusive "It's Not Enough To Be Loved/The Wedding/Bel Ami Reprise", the longest cue on the album at over 5 minutes, which opens with a soft oboe and harp duet, picks up a haunting cello solo performance accentuated by hushed piano chords, and moves briefly into the more turbulent and downbeat `tragedy' material, before finishing the score with a full statement of the gorgeous main theme.
With the exception of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan last year, it's been quite a while since a Rachel Portman score has impressed me this much upon a first listen, and more importantly stayed with me after repeated listens, earmarking Bel Ami as a score worth seeking out. We haven't heard a theme from her with such classical elegance and emotional thrust for several years, and it's wonderful to see her back at the top of her game. More important for me, however, is the discovery of Lakshman Joseph de Saram as a composer of real talent and class. Unfortunately, Western audiences still have this pervading opinion that Indian-based composers are only capable of one type of music - the upbeat, jolly dance tunes heard in a thousand Bollywood musicals each year - to the extent that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many still think that A. R. Rahman is a one-trick pony who only won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire by being in the right place at the right time. Hopefully, Rahman's continued musical expression across different genres in Hollywood, as well as Lakshman's exquisite music here, will go some way to correcting this erroneous opinion, paving the way for other serious Indian film music composers to shine on the global stage.
The score flows extremely well and the blending of the two composers' style works extremely well. The first half of the score has a lighter tone as it slowly spirals into a twisty deceitful tale. The central theme is very grounding if maybe overused a tad, but it sets the score in motion and keeps it motion. The period feel of the music doesn't make it feel gimmicky, which can happen in some period films. They try too hard with the instrumentation and it literally becomes a gimmick. That's not the case here as the instrumentation does give a sense of time but doesn't lose character. It plays the character emotions very well. You can grasp the emotions of the story and the characters very easily, but as a listener you may not feel those emotions. This is isn't a score that transposes itself onto the listener, and in most cases I would consider that a negative. However, I felt very content observing the music and not necessarily participating. It was as if a play was being performed on stage to my ears. The score is tidily wrapped up while returning to that great central theme.
This is a great score that pairs two very strong voices in the film music world. While Laksham is not a household name yet I'm sure you'll be hearing more of him. Rachel Portman is of course one of the greats and it's always a joy to hear her talents behind a score. Bel Ami is something worth discovering and experiencing. I found myself not really reacting to the music with my own emotions, but that isn't to say that I didn't enjoy experiencing it. It's a lovely and well executed score with plenty of layers.