The Genius of Alexandre Desplat

Unpacking the sound behind Little Women, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The French Dispatch
The Genius of Alexandre Desplat

From the intimate nuances to the incredibly impactful moments, film scores are a delicate art often overlooked within the film industry. Vivid acting performances and emotional narratives can instantly reach new heights through intelligent musicality and portrayal of feeling through instruments. Composers by the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer have earned their place as household names through their scoring work in box office hits. They have made their mark on some of the biggest movie franchises of the modern age, from Star Wars and Jurassic Park to Indiana Jones. Although collecting impressive accolades and awards over the years, the often unsung hero within this industry is two-time Oscar-winning French composer Alexandre Desplat. His incredible work has uplifted and perfected the aesthetic and artistic wonder of many impressive, beautifully made films and his genius deserves more attention. 

Born in Paris in 1961, a deep understanding and appreciation for music were ingrained into Desplat’s lifestyle from the beginning. French symphonists Debussy and Ravel founded his love for the art of composing and launched him into the world of scoring, his first pieces appearing in French cinema in 1994. He has an extensive portfolio of nearly 100 films under his belt over the past 30 years, yet his prominence in American cinema began with his work on Wes Anderson’s animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox (2004). He went on to score many other of Anderson’s films, including French Dispatch, Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dogs, and Asteroid City for which he received Academy Award nominations, and won for his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel.

 His career continued to expand with his invitation to work on one of the single most popular movie franchises of our day, in which his work was featured on the scores of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2 alongside David Yates. This year, you can hear Desplat’s musical odyssey continue in the upcoming Washington-based film The Boys in the Boat as well as the Netflix Original film Nyad.

With such a diverse profile of work and eras of musical scoring crossed, Alexandre Desplat’s work has continued to amaze. Yet, I will never be as impressed and connected to a piece of his work as I am to his addition to Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women. Enthralled by the emotional expression I witnessed through the score of the film, I was immediately drawn to discover who the genius behind it was. He was able to stay true to the period of the film, yet inject it with an energy and sense of modernity that reflects the nature of the sisters’ relationship seen in the film. The first piece viewers are privy to hear of Desplat’s in this film is the theme “Little Women.” There is a child-like energy, a sense of spirit and cheerfulness found in the fast tempo, and violin rendition of the theme at the beginning of the piece (1:00). Near the end, the theme is slowed down and simplified to just the piano, a more melancholy seriousness that juxtaposes the once bright opening. Desplat finds the unique ability to capture the joyous naivety of the sisters at the beginning of the film which adapts and changes with age by the end of the film. This film has become a pop culture craze within our generation, and any enjoyer of the film is in for a treat with a deeper dive into the soundtrack. 

With a more traditional piano and string instrument-based score on Desplat’s Little Women, it is fascinating to listen to the incredibly unique and aesthetic-driven pieces created for Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and The French Dispatch. In the Fantastic Mr. Fox score, Desplat uses an interesting combination of fiddle, banjo, and glockenspiel, creating an old-timey feeling reminiscent of the Western era, while also capturing the satirical, child-like energy of the film. “Mr. Fox in the Fields” is the most notable of this soundtrack, and is probably familiar to most film consumers. In his work for The French Dispatch, he expertly captures the primarily vintage French energy the film is uniquely based on, as well as the sheer variety of plot lines, periods, and offshoots the film explores. On this particular soundtrack, Desplat created one of his most modernly popular pieces, in the world of social media and teen music consumption. “Obituary,” the opening piece of the film became the backtrack of the “Wes Anderson Trend” on TikTok and garnered hundreds of thousands of views. In exploring the diverse landscapes of Desplat’s creations, from the old-timey charm of Fantastic Mr. Fox to the vintage French allure of The French Dispatch, one can begin to understand the genius of his work. 

In a world where the soul of a film often lies in its unsung melodies, Alexandre Desplat emerges as a master of emotions woven through the delicate threads of film scores. From the intimate whispers to the grand crescendos, his compositions breathe life into stories. Desplat’s name may not echo as loudly as some, but his pieces transcend mere background music; they become the heartbeat of the narratives. Even without collecting the hype that comes along with being a household name, Desplat’s successes cannot be undermined. In a world where melodies speak louder than words, Alexandre Desplat’s genius deserves not just recognition but a standing ovation. 

For a taste of Alexandre Desplat’s work, listen to some of his best:

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