Music for Melville: Composer Eric Demarsan

After Army of Shadows, Melville and I stayed in touch . . . One day, he announced: “I’m going to make a new film. You’re not composing the score for it; I’ve contacted Michel Legrand . . .” Of course, I was disappointed. We’d just had a big success, he’d appreciated my work, and he’d told me so many times. And then, bang, he changed composers. So logically, I kept my distance and stopped my visits . . . Months later, I got a call from Melville: “Monsieur Demarsan, could you stop by Boulogne next Tuesday at three?” I made a note of the rendezvous, but I didn’t ask him why. He added, “Come as you are—a gray suit.” Which meant I shouldn’t stand out by dressing in my Carnaby Street clothes. I should remain as discreet as possible. I turned up early in Boulogne that Tuesday, waited behind the studio door for five minutes, and then at exactly three o’clock, I saw Melville: “Ah, Monsieur Demarsan. This is the situation: I don’t like Monsieur Legrand’s work. Do you agree to write the music for Le cercle rouge? If you accept, you have three weeks to do it . . .” It was quite a reversal, and I had mixed feelings: on the one hand, I was delighted to be reunited with Melville; on the other, I hadn’t the slightest idea why he’d disagreed with Michel Legrand . . . and I didn’t want to replace him unfairly. So on principle, I didn’t accept straightaway, I just asked if I could think about it.

The next day, before I’d even had time to contact him, Michel Legrand called me: “Melville wants you to do the music for Le cercle rouge. Don’t be embarrassed on my account . . . It’s very short notice, so if you need a hand with the arrangements, just let me know . . .” It was extremely fair play, very gentlemanly of him . . . In this business, it’s rare to find people who behave so elegantly. His call let me accept Melville’s offer, but the proposal was still a challenge, given the calendar we had to work with.

Shortly afterward, I saw a screening and discovered the film without Michel’s music. Le cercle rouge appeared different from Army of Shadows: it was more contemporary, obviously, but above all it wasn’t as lyrical, it was much more abstract. It’s an icy film about people’s trajectories. Melville asked me for a minimalist piece of music in the orchestral spirit of the Modern Jazz Quartet. He’d kept a sort of nostalgia over John Lewis and their botched collaboration on Le deuxième souffle. To guide my inspiration, Melville [had] me listen to a 35 mm tape of the mixed soundtrack to Robert Wise’s movie Odds Against Tomorrow, which was an original score by Lewis. “That’s the color I need!” he said. Hence the main theme for Le cercle rouge: brass chords, and a jazz quintet for a simple melody drawn back into itself.

Melville’s request was clear: in Le cercle rouge, the music has to give you the feeling of being trapped, the idea of fate. All these characters . . . have an appointment with their destiny. In fact, I remember one particular sequence, with Delon inside a lift, and you can see the light from the interior pass fleetingly from one floor to the next. Melville said to me: “That image, it’s a premonition of death. Your music has to give us that feeling . . .” And yet, at that point in the film, no one has an inkling of the character’s tragic end. So when I was writing it, I tried to intensify that vision as something fugitive and almost subliminal. The score for the film, as a whole, is run through with anxiety. As always with Melville, feelings had to pass through a very fine sieve. And what was very important was that he didn’t want to dramatize in the traditional way, with old-style effects. He preferred to feed Le cercle rouge with a more secret score, music that carries the abstract and metaphysical aspect of the film.

As I remember, I began by composing the numerous source pieces the film needed. Melville wanted to personalize places by using specific themes: jazz radio in the car, a musette waltz for a tarts’ hotel, a big band for a nightclub . . . Another difficulty: the dance scenes in the club had been shot using playback tapes of Michel Legrand’s music, so the only choice left was for me to write new themes that fit the choreography to a T . . . The only part Melville refused was my end title: the film tells the story of a circle that closes in on a handful of men; to come full circle, it absolutely had to have an end theme that had been heard before, for symmetry’s sake . . . Melville preferred the quintet version of the theme, which was bare and uncluttered, to the end title originally planned, which was orchestral and broader. Maybe I’d fallen into the trap of the nice, grand-sounding end title. Melville wanted to play squaring the circle. At the time, I was sorry he did, but I could understand. His approach was coherent.

When you write music to go with a visual image, you can’t always be 100 percent in the director’s head. You try to share his vision . . . But in Melville’s case, it was impossible to anticipate all his reactions; in the end, it was his own gaze, his point of view, that counted. That said, the dialogue was much simpler in Le cercle rouge. I’d gained in assurance, and our relationship had changed into a professional friendship. We gradually got to know each other better and, more than that, to understand each other better. At the same time, I never got too familiar with him: we were always politely distant, and he called me Monsieur Demarsan for ages before he ventured a timid “Eric”! At the end of the mixing, Melville turned to me and said, “You know, Eric, I’ve made my decision. This time you’ll be in the opening credits!” It was a reward, an unparalleled honor. I took it as a mark of respect on his part . . . And it was quite an exploit—I was (and still am) the only composer ever to work with him twice! I just didn’t know that our adventure would end there: Melville died three years later, in 1973. Deep inside, I feel a certain pride in having Melville as my first film director.

The preceding is from an interview with
Le cercle rouge composer Eric Demarsan, conducted by music historian and author Stéphane Lerouge for the liner notes of Écoutez le cinéma, his series of original film soundtracks, available on compact disc from Universal Music Jazz France.

You have no items in your shopping cart