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En mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît
  • Composed by Ennio Morricone
  • Quartet Records / 2015 / 44m

Set in France in 1940, En mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît tells the true story of a group of villagers who flee their homes to escape from the invading Germans.  Directed by Christian Carion and starring August Diehl and Olivier Gourmet, the film is staged as a kind of western and its tale of people crossing France away from Calais to flee the horrors of war offers an interesting (if coincidental) juxtaposition with the refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe.

The film has received rather mixed reviews but for one glorious exception, which is the return to cinema after the longest gap of his career of the legendary composer Ennio Morricone.  It’s his first score for French cinema in thirty years.  Director Carion usually works with Philippe Rombi and I’m not sure why he didn’t this time, but having temp-tracked the film with Once Upon a Time in the West he tentatively enquired about Morricone and was delighted when he accepted (and immediately told the director to ditch the temp-track).

Ennio Morricone recording the score in Rome

Ennio Morricone recording the score in Rome

Morricone has scored so many films, he’s ended up writing music for similarly-themed movies over and over again.  This is by my count his sixth score since 2005 for a film set during World War Two, and in truth it offers few surprises.  The biggest of them is possibly the absence of any truly stark suspense music, which often finds its way into these things – while it does of course have some dark moments, largely the composer’s music is bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which is truly beautiful and makes for a consistently wonderful album with some stunning melodic highlights.

It doesn’t take long for the first of those to arrive: the nine-minute opening track “En mai” is a real powerhouse.  A rising four-note phrase runs all the way through the piece, subtly shifting modulation as it goes, presumably signalling a tireless march onwards: indeed, it is the only thing heard for almost three minutes when finally a doubled horn and flute join, the melody lilting, warm, pleasant.  Then the strings swell behind, adding a further glossy sheen, before ultimately taking on the melody themselves – it’s classic, vintage Morricone.

The second cue, “L’étau se resserre”, is one of the score’s ventures into more suspenseful territory, but as I mentioned, it’s never abrasive nor unpleasant.  Strings play short, slightly tentative phrases, running over multiple layers, little pizzicato bursts offer some stings – it’s not anything we haven’t heard many times before from Morricone, but he does do it very well.  “Ils resteront trois” is one of those Ennio Morricone pieces: a sumptuous, soaring, exquisite and unforgettable melody, from the “Deborah’s Theme” mould (without the voice).  It is so fluid, so seemingly effortlessly moving – a feather on the breeze.  The B-section is lighter still, warmer still.  It’s just so, so beautiful.

Ennio Morricone and Christian Carion

Ennio Morricone and Christian Carion

The brief “Traverser la guerre” is tinged with sadness but “Tout laisser” is much sunnier – it opens with solo accordion, a violin joins, then a harmonica – it’s a unique trio, producing a lovely sound, the instruments seeming to twist away together as if they’re dancing, before the strings swell once more – romantic, dazzling, delightful.  “Ils arrivent” is probably the darkest piece in the score, some jagged edges this time to the strings, some intensely dramatic suspense and even a few bars that remind me a bit of Herrmann/Hitchcock.  It’s back to melody in “Respirations” – this time with a feeling of a suspended heart thanks to the pauses between the phrases (there’s a hint of the composer’s theme from Malena in there too).

“Tous ensemble” features a light, airy melody for flute, dancing playfully around, the fluffiest part of the score.  It reappears at the close of the following “Et même les animaux sont avec eux” but not before another great passage for the strings, full of feeling.  The score closes with one last gem, “A la recherche de la paix” – solo trumpet sounding so noble over the wash of strings, then replaced with one of the signature sounds of Morricone’s career, a wordless soprano – a stunning conclusion to a stunning album.

At the time of writing these words, Ennio Morricone is a couple of days away from his 87th birthday.  Of course he is no longer the extraordinarily innovative composer he was half a century ago (and for a long time thereafter) – and En mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît is predictable, in the best possible way.  One of the things that’s most predictable is just how good it is – the composer has lost none of his gift for melody and there are several truly exquisite ones here.  It’s like a visit from an old friend, really – one you haven’t seen for a while.  And I have to say, it’s magnificent – so moving, so often.  The composer is nothing like the workhorse he once was, but he’s already recorded his next two scores: one for Tarantino, one for Tornatore.  Reportedly, the next one he does will be for Malick.  He remains at the very top of his game and this score is at the very top of 2015’s film music.  It is one to be treasured.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. dominique (Reply) on Sunday 8 November, 2015 at 02:21

    thanks you so much for this wonderful review, james, you just bring it to the point – this one is really at the very top of 2015´s film music!
    and the last two minutes of “la recherche de la paix” are simply breathtakingly beautiful!

  2. Palavar (Reply) on Sunday 8 November, 2015 at 06:00

    “…he is no longer the extraordinarily innovative composer he was half a century ago…” True enough, and what you go on to talk about, which I agree with, is that even though he’s no longer innovative, he is still exceptionally talented as this score shows, one of the last great masters still alive in our time.

  3. Addie (Reply) on Sunday 8 November, 2015 at 16:47

    Thanks for this detailed and wonderful review!

    Your “largely the composer’s music is bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which is truly beautiful and makes for a consistently wonderful album with some stunning melodic highlights”, sold me on getting it!!!


  4. Maarten (Reply) on Monday 16 November, 2015 at 22:20

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I’m simply so grateful for all the music Ennio Morricone has given to us an still gives… The buildup of that first track pulled me in right away. Astonishing, wonderful!

  5. dominique (Reply) on Friday 26 February, 2016 at 22:22

    a pitty, that he was overlooked once again by the “césar” awards academy for this beautiful work!