Debbie Wiseman MBE

Reviews

Arsene Lupin

Jonathan Broxton
Movie Music UK

Original Review: Regular readers of Movie Music UK will know that I am a big fan of the British composer Debbie Wiseman. Not only is she blazing a trail for female composers in film music at a time when they are still vastly outnumbered in the battle of the sexes, but she has written a number of staggeringly good scores since she burst on the international scene in the mid-1990s: Tom & Viv, Haunted and especially her 1997 masterpiece Wilde are amongst my personal favourite scores. Taking that into account, you will understand what massive praise I am bestowing when I say that, unequivocally, Arsène Lupin is her finest score to date.

Based on the famous series of novels by Maurice Leblanc, and directed by Jean-Paul Salomé, Arsène Lupin tells the story of the eponymous hero, a self-styled “gentleman jewel thief” moving in the aristocratic circles of late 19th century Paris. A cross between Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Indiana Jones and James Bond, Lupin (Romain Duris) was taught the art of “honourable theft” by his father, and vowed to continue his father’s work after he is murdered. Fifteen years later, Arsène is living the life of a gentleman, carrying out non-violent crimes for the good of the people, while wooing two women: childhood sweetheart Clarisse (Eva Green), and the mysterious and seductive Countess Josephine de Cagliostro (Kristin Scott Thomas). Everything changes when Arsène finds himself caught up in a labyrinthine plot of love, politics and intrigue following his discovery of a conspiracy by royalists to overthrow the Republic. In order to thwart the uprising, Arsène finds himself in a race to steal three crucifixes which supposedly hold the key to the crown – but finds himself in competition with the wily Beaumagnon (Pascal Greggory), a rival thief who claims to have been Josephine's former lover.

Making excellent use of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and with special emphasis on an enlarged brass section, large-scale percussion, and solo performances of both a cimbalom and a glass harmonica, the most impressive aspect of Arsène Lupin is its size and range: this is a massive score in every respect. The delicious mix of action, romance, period drama and light comedy – all within a French setting – allowed Wiseman to really stretch her compositional muscles to the extreme. The end result is nothing short of magnificent.

I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way, because I don’t mean it in a derogatory or sexist way at all, but Arsène Lupin doesn’t sound like it was written by a woman. By that I mean, in film music, scores written by women tend to induce certain preconceptions of what they will sound like - the sensitive piano scores of Rachel Portman being one example. Unless you’re Shirley Walker, earth-shattering action doesn’t usually enter the equation, but Arsène Lupin could have been written by a Hollywood action type such as Danny Elfman or Alan Silvestri. I most definitely mean that as a compliment - there is an air of Batman and Van Helsing about Wiseman’s work here. Never before has she written music on this scale, with themes this bold, brasses this powerful, or percussion this prominent.

Wiseman’s main theme is a jaunty, yet sly melody for sweeping strings, undulating brasses and a tinkling cimbalom, which underlines Lupin’s wily ways with broad orchestral strokes, mixing the flavours of intrigue and heroism into a delicious cocktail. Appearing first in the opening cue, “Arsène Lupin”, it is reworked into an enormous action set-piece in “The Needle of Etretat”, and appears in several cues thereafter. She continues to illustrate Lupin’s aristocratic character through a number of set pieces which depict both the setting and the time period. “Casino” has an air of fancy - a shimmering dance for a more refined age. Straussian waltzes give “The Ballroom” an air of Viennese opulence, while some of the quieter moments of reflection and romance (“Clarisse and Arsène”, “Goodbye Mother”, “Clarisse Awakes”) are fuelled by Wilde-like tender pianos and warm strings, with the added bonus of an occasional solo trumpet á la Nino Rota.

The cimbalom features prominently throughout the score, and is used both as an indicator of the European setting, and to add a touch of light-heartedness to what is otherwise a dramatic and powerful score. The instrument, in film music circles at least, is synonymous with the work of of John Barry in the 1960s, especially scores such as The Ipcress File. In a roundabout way, Wiseman’s use of the instrument makes Lupin a distant cousin of Harry Palmer: tough, determined, but with a twinkle in his eye. Alasdair Molloy‘s glass harmonica adds a sense of mystery to cues such as “Countess Cagliostro” and “Underwater”, a pipe organ adds a touch of the neo-Gothic to the “The Mask of Prince Sernine”, and moments of playful comedy give a lightness to “Fooled by a Newcomer”. However, in a score full of highlights, the moments which stand out the most involve action.

Several cues, notably “Le Grand Cafè”, the Frankenstein-like “Arsène et Beaumagnan”, the energetic “Theft of the Crucifix”, the propulsive “Fields of Lupin”, the sweeping “The Eighth Star Will Be Divine”, and the percussion-heavy “The Blue Lupin” throb to massive orchestral forces. Each of these are underpinned by a number of fascinating brass-led rhythms, and driven by recapitulations of one or more of the main themes by the strong string section. These cues are simply spellbinding, relentlessly moving forward with power, energy and creativity. When Wiseman adds a choir, as she often does, the music takes on an epic grandeur that has not been heard to this extent from her before.

The song, “Qui Es-Tu?”, is a delightful French melody adapted from Wiseman’s theme, which is performed with sultry gusto by vocalist Mathieu Chedid (credited as “M”), who added a similar sense of romance and whimsy to the Oscar nominated song from the 2003 French animated film Belleville Rendez-Vous.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Arsène Lupin is by far the most impressive score of Debbie Wiseman’s career to date. Interestingly, it could also prove to be the most important: there are seventeen Arsène Lupin novels in print, and it could be that if this film is an international success, a franchise of sequels may develop. Assuming her creative partnership with director Salomé continues, I would certainly relish an opportunity for Wiseman to take this material and develop it further on additional films. As it stands, Arsène Lupin has a size, depth, creativity and excitement equal to – if not greater than – the best that Hollywood has to offer, and is easily one of the best scores of 2004.

Track Listing:
Qui Es-Tu? (written by Debbie Wiseman, Sébastien Martel, Piers Faccini and Marcel Kanche, performed by ‘M’) (3:06)
Arsène Lupin (2:14)
Le Grand Café (6:27)
Arsène Deserted (3:14)
Casino (1:36)
The Needle of Etretat (2:50)
Clarisse et Arsène (1:43)
Arsène Escapes (2:09)
Goodbye Mother (3:07)
Countess Cagliostro (3:29)
Underwater (3:27)
Arsène et Beaumagnan (2:04)
The Ballroom (2:08)
Theft of the Crucifix (4:13)
Under the Spell (4:18)
The Mask of Prince Sernine (2:34)
Fields of Lupin (4:14)
The Eighth Star Will Be Divine (4:53)
The Hollow Needle (1:48)
Fooled by a Newcomer (3:08)
Clarisse Wakes (3:34)
The Blue Lupin (2:38)
Secret Passage (4:51)
Running Time: 73 minutes 53 seconds

EMI France 7243-8636282-7 (2004)

Music composed and conducted by Debbie Wiseman. Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Crouch End Festival Chorus. Orchestrations by Debbie Wiseman. Featured musical soloists Michael Whight, Ian Jones, Greg Knowles and Alasdair Molloy. Recorded and mixed by Steve Price. Album produced by Debbie Wiseman and James Fitzpatrick.

The legendary exploits of turn-of-the century French jewel thief and gentleman burglar Arsene Lupin get an extreme makeover with this eponymous film from director Jean-Paul Salome. A luxurious period production turns Arsene into something of a bad-boy action hero along the lines of that grave robber Indiana Jones and hired gun James Bond.

Stunts and production values are outstanding especially designer Francoise Dupertuis' evocation of Paris of the 1890s, where many of its well-known monuments were under construction. Debbie Wiseman's pulsating orchestral score adds to the excitement.


Kirk Honeycutt
The Hollywood Reporter.Com


Gary Dalkin
Film Music on the Web

Arsène Lupin was the creation of the prolific French writer Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941), the character being an aristocratic gentleman thief, rogue, adventurer and anti-hero sufficiently popular to feature in well over a dozen films and television series inspired by Leblanc's original 20 novels. (There were also five sequels by the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the talent behind Les Diaboliques and Vertigo.)

The latest film comes courtesy of French filmmaker Jean-Paul Salomé, whose previous feature was an updated version of Belphégor - Le fantôme du Louvre, taken from the fantasy adventure novel by Leblanc's contemporary Arthur Bernède (1971-1937). Where that film had a score by French composer Bruno Coulais, this time musical duties have fallen to England's Debbie Wiseman, who has excelled herself given her first opportunity to write a really large scale blockbuster scale romantic action score.

Wiseman has always had a fine facility for melody, and this does not desert her here. The result is a thrilling 70 minute powerhouse of Gothic adventure scoring for chorus and orchestra (expert brass and percussion writing to the for) which, like the film itself, and indeed like the recent Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow scored by Edward Shearmur, pays homage to film music's past while retaining a modern sensibility.

The album opens with a song, co-written by Wiseman and performed by the enigmatically named 'M' Mathieu Chedid which is something along the lines of a retro homage to Francois Lai's 1970's retro homages to 1930's French song, complete with modern-ish production including electric guitar. Presumably this plays over the end titles of the film, and while apparently out of keeping with the period of the film is rather more palatable than most current movie songs.

Then the score begins, and as it unfolds two things rapidly become apparent. First that it benefits greatly from the first class performances of an orchestra as august as the Royal Philharmonic – Wiseman now works with the orchestra regularly and indeed gives concerts of her music with the RPO. Second, where much current blockbuster film music is all too generic, here is music with real personality; it can not be a coincidence that Wiseman orchestrated and conducted her music herself, where so many film scores are produced in such desperate haste whole armies of orchestrators are employed, giving the end result something of a homogenous sound regardless of the composer.

No such problems here, as Wiseman delivers a very large scale score rich in themes from high adventure to all out Gothic fury and tender fairytale romance; away from the action 'The Mask of Prince Sernine' is a charming fantasy affair and 'The Ballroom' is an expert waltz pastiche. One might on occasion wonder what music the film was originally temp tracked with, as similarities to the thunderous propulsive creation sequence music from Patrick Doyle's score for Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein can be discerned in a cue such as 'Arsene et Beaumagnan', magisterially swirling strings akin to Elliot Goldenthall's Alien3 make an appearance on occasion, or we are swept along with an dynamism owning just a little to Danny Elfman's Batman or Adrian Johnson's Shackleton. There are also suggestions of John Barry's 'Capsule in Space' from You Only Live Twice in 'Le Grand Café' and the lonely trumpet of Nino Rota's The Godfather waltz in the opening of 'Goodbye Mother' and 'The Blue Lupin'. But whether the result of temp tracking, or homages, conscious or not, these elements simply add to the rich mix of a score which is not in any case seeking to break barriers, but cast an affectionate eye on the glory days of pulp adventure cinema. Hence we are treated to the exotic use of cimbalom, always effective for evoking espionage since the days of Barry's The IPCRESS File, in both suspense and blistering action modes – 'The Theft of the Crucifix' is a set-piece of rare ferocity which remains musically coherent and compelling throughout.

I could describe the disc track by track, or save you time by saying the entire album is almost an embarrassment of elegant riches with every cue revealing fresh, boldly conceived musical delights. The melodic sensibility which gave us My Uncle Silas, Wilde, Tom's Midnight Garden, Haunted and many more is still here, but now is coupled with a new sense of scale, grandeur and confidence which demonstrates the very impressive range and invention of Wiseman's compositional talent.

If it were not already clear (with superb work ranging from Wilde to Warriors and most points between), this disc should make it amply so that Wiseman is one of the finest, most versatile, melodically and technically accomplished film composers currently working. Whether or not this is her best score or not will have to wait until the film is available for viewing in the UK, but it has certainly resulted in her most enthralling score album to-date, the sort of sweeping epic romantic action writing which will surely win over converts who might have found previous scores from 5the composer too small or intimate for their liking. There may not be the artistic seriousness of Warriors here, but that is hardly the point, as a listening experience the disc gives the greatest pleasure of any Wiseman score release to date. Not only that, but half-way through November it is easily among the best of the couple of hundred new albums I've heard so far in 2004.

Despite his anonymity in the United States, Arsène Lupin is a well-known character in Europe. Author Maurice Leblanc created Lupin in a series of twenty novels nearly a century ago, and his popularity since has extended to various television series, film adaptations, and an anime series about Lupin's grandson in Japan. The character is a gentleman thief who serves as France's combination of Batman, Indiana Jones, and James Bond. A rogue trained by his father as a master of disguise and aristocratic manners, he (unlike his father) vows not to kill anyone no matter the circumstances. Falling in love and falling into involvement with perpetual plans of scheming royalists to re-establish the French Monarchy, Lupin leads a life of intrigue and extraordinary beauty in a Gothic environment of shades of black. This 2004 adaptation produced by the U.K., Italy, and France, was directed by Jean-Paul Salomé and released initially in France before opening across the world in 2005. Based on the 1924 novel "The Countess of Cagliostro,"

Arsène Lupin boasts high production values with its 23-million Euro budget, and one of benefits of that budget is an expansive score by British composer Debbie Wiseman. To see Wiseman's name on advertisements for Arsène Lupin came as a surprise to many Wiseman collectors, but certainly not an unpleasant surprise. Known mostly in England, where she has received considerable recognition for her work, Wiseman remains outside the sphere of mainstream Hollywood. Her music has often fallen closer to the realm of similarly-producing Rachel Portman, with fine melodies often gracing films far less adventuresome and ambitious as Arsène Lupin. For her, this project would prove important not only because of its significant size and scope, but its capability of turning into a franchise of films based on its critical and popular success. In response, she would do what every fan of a rising composer (especially one narrowing the gender gap) would hope for: produce a masterpiece.

Wiseman must have looked at this project with much of the same enthusiasm and heart-pounding anticipation with which Danny Elfman looked at Batman, for both scores are so superior to anything in their budding careers. For Elfman, Batman would become the calling card for his work, and Arsène Lupin should do the same for Wiseman. The success of Wiseman's score is of such a grand and magnificent scale that an attempt to convey all of its assets here would be futile; so remarkable is nearly every aspect of this 70-minute score on album that an intangible sense of accomplishment begins to define its quality at the halfway point. Scores that overwhelm the listener with the beauty of brute power and masterful orchestral distribution are rarely heard in films of the post-2000 era, with Gabriel Yared's rejected score for Troy last year serving as testimony to that fact. But for a world as Gothic as Arsène Lupin, Wiseman pulls out all the plugs and delivers a powerhouse of a score that manages to convey the era of the film (in its instrumentation and Waltz-like rhythms) while also feeding off of all the menacing darkness that a shadowy anti-hero deserves. Immensely satisfying bass, a rambunctious percussion section, and an oversized brass section produce fanfares of sound in Arsène Lupin that avoid the pitfalls of over-density through a perpetual knack for high style. The outright action cues will knock you out in every listen, with "Arsène and Beaumagnan" featuring extraordinarily aggressive rhythms carried by all the various brass players and relentlessly propulsive strings; equally impressive is "Theft of the Crucifix," with a continued assault of brass layers serving as a backdrop for a duel between a cimbalom and anvil. Brass hasn't resonated with this kind of harsh and gripping clarity in a score for years. Low range piano and bass strings provide a boiling and relentless bass region also rare in today's scores.

The cimbalom is an intriguing element in Arsène Lupin, for its presence throughout the score roots it in both the appropriate time and place, with easily distinguishable sound as it is mixed at the forefront of each cue in which it performs. Its most notable contributions exist in the two pronouncements of the title theme, in both "Arsène Lupin" and "Secret Passage." Backing a relatively simple brass fanfare for the title character is a waltz that carries the elegance of the character while romantic string interludes cover all sides of his personality. All the while, Wiseman's score squeezes every last drop of glory out of each minor-key chord progression, often relying on the assistance of a choir to elevate the fantasy aspect while broadening the soundscape even further. In "Countess Cagliostro," we hear tragedy of almost a "Godfather" twist of theme yielding to brass and choral assaults as wicked as John Barry's opening to The Lion in Winter. Another intriguing choral cue is "Le Grand Café," arguably the hidden highlight of the album, with ominous rumblings of timpani, tolling bells, and an epic choral crescendo over alternating strings and light cymbal rolls. Interestingly, the mood and style of "Le Grand Café" for some reason seems like a perfect match for the upcoming The Da Vinci Code (for those who have read the book, of course), and the same could be said about several other cues. Another strength of Wiseman's score her ability to involve every member of the orchestra without allowing the density to become so thick that you end up with a John Williams prequel Star Wars or Howard Shore The Lord of the Rings score. An organ opens "The Blue Lupin" and is overtaken by one of the many ripping rhythms on solo drums; "Arsène Escapes" gives the snare a significant solo workout. In "The Needle of Etretat," Wiseman opens with a solo piano motif that would make any modern thriller film jealous.

Softer moments of Arsène Lupin do exist, but their length in between swelling string melancholy or angry explosions of brass is often short. Not even comedy is lost in this work, with a cimbalom and lightly prancing violins evolving into almost parodies of motifs blown with vicious force by brass in the rest of the score. In the end, it's the ferocious performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Crouch End Festival Chorus that really bring Arsène Lupin to life. Wiseman has conducted the group in concert, and the knowledge how to orchestrate and conduct the group herself pays off with a score vibrant with personality at every turn. It's difficult to find detractions in the score, though the opening song on the album, with its electric guitar and other obvious period-busting elements, is perhaps unnecessary despite its adaptation of one of Wiseman's themes. The strictly period pieces, including the classically inclined "Casino" and "The Ballroom" don't convey much of the same sense of potentially impending doom around the corner that most of the score embodies. Also of slight disappointment is the lack of more interpretations of the title theme in the ambitious action cues throughout the score; the title theme is certainly catchy, and its absence in most of the large-scale action cues is curious. That said, Arsène Lupin is a delight to behold in nearly every cue. Very rarely do orchestral action and thriller scores produce such mayhem while sounding genuine and novel these days, though Dario Marianelli offered roughly the same kind of refreshing take on the genre in The Brothers Grimm during the same year.

At a time when American composers, and the establishment that creates many of them, churns out the schlock that passes for action film music, the Europeans remind us that sophistication can indeed coexist with simple, harmonious, kick-ass orchestral force. Patrick Doyle, Alexandre Desplat, Ennio Morricone, Marianelli, and Wiseman have given film music listeners plenty to chew on in the last year, and let's hope that their American counterparts take notice. As mentioned before, parts of this score seem as though they could be temped into the upcoming The Da Vinci Code with great effect, and Hans Zimmer in particular should be among the first of those counterparts to give it a listen. For American collectors, obtaining Arsène Lupin on album --or even viewing the film-- will prove elusive. The film debuted in widespread release first in France in 2004, and then spread across the world in 2005. Notably absent from its release, however, was the United States, never showing in America in even a festival. The only album that exists is a commercial release from the French branch of EMI, with packaging in French except for cue titles and notes about the score, both provided by the English-speaking Wiseman. Unavailable from even online soundtrack specialty outlets, the score can be bought anywhere from either Amazon.com UK or France. Even at a cost of about $25 with shipping from these overseas outlets, Arsène Lupin is well worth the effort, though with the immense critical success that the score has received thus far, it's hard to imagine that some American release won't eventually occur. Without a doubt, Arsène Lupin should assist in fans' discovery of Wiseman's talents, and while the score may not be representative of her larger body of work, it's easy to hope that if a franchise develops out of the Leblanc character, Wiseman's powerful and elegant ideas for that character will continue. This score receives an unequivocal recommendation.


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