Would you believe me if I told you that one of the most transcendent moments in contemporary cinema is soundtracked by the Moody Blues? Nothing against the English arena rock stalwarts, who last year were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but even in the late 1960s, at the absolute height of their powers as progenitors of an eternally (and proudly) unfashionable progressive rock sound, the Moody Blues were anything but cool. Which is to say, then as now, they’re not exactly the first band you’d expect to hear in a movie, let alone a French movie set in an early 20th century brothel.
Director Bertrand Bonello used the Moody Blues to spectacular effect in his 2011 masterpiece House of Tolerance, a feverish evocation of fin de siècle Paris in which period perfect detail and flagrant artifice collide in a of slipstream of pre- and postmodern aesthetics. Set to the band’s ostentatious 1967 track “Nights in White Satin,” the film’s centerpiece sequence, following a tease of the song in the opening credits, enacts as a kind of dance of death as the young women of the house waltz in step to the music’s seductive grandeur as tears stream down their faces. The scene’s bracing, anachronistic beauty is such that Bonello’s use of pop music has become a calling card of sorts: both Saint Laurent (2014) and Nocturama (2016) feature similarly singular marriages of music and movement. In the former, a Chanel model sways in appropriately enraptured motion to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “I Put a Spell on You,” while in the latter, among a soundtrack comprised of no shortage of millennial pop hits (including a pair of de facto themes in the form of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” and Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”), actor Hamza Meziani performs a show-stopping lip synch of Shirley Bassey’s “My Way.”
Less remarked upon amidst all this pomp is Bonello’s use of original music, which he’s personally composed and performed for all thirteen of his credited short and feature-length films to date. A new limited edition compilation of Bonello’s music from American distributor Grasshopper Film looks to change that. Bringing together highlights from the scores of the director’s three most recent features, Music from the Films of Bertrand Bonello’s fourteen tracks efficiently trace this unofficial trilogy’s arc from early 20th century decadence to midcentury modernism to present day nihilism. Amongst the hip (and occasionally not-so-hip) pop and rock cues it can be easy to overlook Bonello’s compositions, which, depending on the scenario, generally oscillate between streamlined electronica and softly orchestrated themes for chamber instruments. You could call it mood music, the sort of accompaniment intended to dust the corners of the sound mix or shadow the onscreen action rather than assert itself, but as with his stylishly referential visual syntax, Bonello fashions a rich matrix of sonic markers that lend an additional dimension to a catalogue of films acutely concerned with the weight of history and its contemporary resonances.
The record begins with four pieces from Nocturama, Bonello’s most overt engagement with genre cinema. These tracks sport a sleek and propulsive thrust appropriate for a thriller, particularly one that traffics in the symptoms of a materialist world run amok, and as such represent the most direct and dramatic of the director’s scores. The opening title theme, which soundtracks the film’s largely wordless, real-time excursion across the Paris transit system, may be the most instantly recognizable piece of original music in any Bonello film. A low-slung techno track with a retro-futurist synth melody resembling some of the more keyboard driven tunes from Italian prog band Goblin’s score for George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), one of Nocturama’s acknowledged inspirations, the song is an ideal scene-setter: tense, hypnotic, and vaguely unnerving. More overtly dramatic are the grinding, filter house number “Death Car” and the slowly unfolding “Semtex,” which pairs a steady, Drexciya-like pulse with wordless female vocals that graft a ghostly aura to the lockstep groove.
The droning, lightly melodic “Visions de Nuit,” the final Nocturama track, segues into a quartet of tracks from House of Tolerance, easily the subtlest and shortest of the included pieces. Indeed, these tracks feel more like cues than standalone songs, brief showcases for one or two instruments meant to punctuate or accent a scene. In the context of the film, these pieces needn’t do much aurally, accompanying as they do images of such striking intensity. The barely audible ambient track “Il Y A Des Larme Blanches” (“There Are White Tears”), for example, plays as tears of semen drip from the eyes of a disfigured prostitute, while the spare guitar and synth reverberations of “L'Apollonide” are functional enough to follow the characters across both the brothel’s lavishly ornamented, candle-lit corridors and the film’s greater spatial-temporal divide between past and present nightmares. (Lest we forget, Days of Future Passed is the title of the 1967 Moody Blues album featuring “Nights in White Satin.”) If in the film these pieces play a primarily interstitial role, here they provide a brief respite from the bristling anxiety of the Nocturama score and the melodramatic sweep of the Saint Laurent tracks.
The six pieces from Bonello’s Yves Saint Laurent biopic cover quite a bit of ground, allowing for more dynamic contrasts and interplay between the selections. “La Mort de Moujik,” an ode to the iconic fashion designer's dead French bulldog, adopts an early electro palette somewhere between the komische throb of Cluster and the pop stylings of Yellow Magic Orchestra. As in the film, the dark undercurrents of Saint Laurent’s life are never far from the surface: swooning yet solemn, “Une Soiree Avec Betty” sounds less like a party then the long, half-dazed walk home after a night of overindulgence, while the sampled voices and unsettling screams that drift across the channels during “Jacques de Bascher” reflect the nascent tensions that the titular dandy would stoke between Saint Laurent and Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld in the years to come. But rather than close on too bleak a note, Music from the Films of Bertrand Bonello fades into a kind of nostalgic glow with its final track, “Yves,” a bittersweet theme for keys and programmed beats that speaks as well as any track here to Bonello’s ability to tell a compelling story through a variety of means.