The music and film collaborations of Tindersticks and Claire Denis
An appreciation of the long-term creative partnership between the French director and the UK band
Just as there are actors directors consistently work with, and where the French have a term called the acteur/actrice fétiche to define this affiliation, equally there are many filmmakers whose relationship with their composers seem equally significant: a compositeur fétiche. Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, Federico Fellini and Nino Rota, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, Peter Greenaway and Michael Nyman – and of course Claire Denis and Tindersticks. What is interesting in such pairings is that the music often feels distinctively like the composer’s own work, but also allied to a filmmaker’s vision – which is not quite the same thing as serving it. When Spielberg uses John Williams in Jaws, when Mel Gibson uses James Horner for Braveheart, or even when Scorsese or Cronenberg use Howard Shore, the music is at the service of the director. In these other instances, and perhaps none more so than between Denis and Tindersticks, the music seems simultaneously entirely apt and utterly capable of being listened to in a context outwith the film itself. It is an interesting paradox: a symbiotic relationship that at the same time needn’t be inextricable.
It is as if the tour Tindersticks have embarked upon is an exemplification of this symbiosis without inextricability. Here they are, travelling the UK, with various images from the Denis films they have scored playing on a screen behind the stage the band perform on. Perhaps the question to ask is why it works so well outside the context of the films’ narratives, and why there are numerous film composers for whom the idea of hearing their work in semi-isolation, without the context of the film’s story, would seem futile. Perhaps this is due to Denis’ avoidance of what is commonly called cue music, or pit music: a soundtrack that too centrally and often too lazily directs our attention to the narrative events on screen. Most movie music is exactly this: as composer Hans Zimmer says in Film Score Monthly: “Within any year I see 90 – no, maybe 98 – percent horrible stuff and two percent quality.” And Zimmer wouldn’t deny he is responsible for much that is mediocre. “As for me, I certainly didn't write anything great last year.” But then Zimmer is one of many composers in cinema who is a musician for hire, so the craft and technique replace the personal. With Denis and Tindersticks it seems the opposite. In an interview in The Independent with Denis and singer Stuart A. Staples, Denis says, “He comes into the editing room and guesses things that have not even been clarified for me yet.” In another interview with White Material, Denis and Staples describe the process of working together and give as an example 35 Shots of Rum. Denis happened to have the footage, and Staples was working on something that coincidentally suited it perfectly. As he says: “Every step we took seemed a natural step. It was the same making the music. That’s one of the reasons people are affected by the film because it had warmth inside it.”
Of course many a film has the warmth outside it; imposed upon it by a workmanlike score that allows for the viewer in Claudia Gorbman’s words to be “bathed in affect”. There is warmth aplenty, but so superimpositionally placed that it creates too cued a feeling. Though some Tindersticks scores seem more cinematically specific (White Material and perhaps passages in The Intruder), others, like Trouble Every Day, Friday Night and 35 Shots of Rum, seem to flow through the film like an intimate dialogue between the band and the filmmaker. Whether it is the low-level shots of the Seine at the beginning of Trouble Every Day, or the high placed shots that offer up the Paris rooftops that open Friday Night, the band place themselves within the context of the images without intruding on the director’s sensibility or suffocating their own.
But then the notion of private worlds interconnecting is vital to Denis’ work, whether dangerously so as in Trouble Every Day, or for a moment of passing romance in Friday Night. If the former explores passions so inflammatory as Beatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo, who carry around with them an obscure cannibalistic disease that leads love-making to become death-making, Friday Night muses over how fruitful a night of love with a stranger can be during Valerie Lemercier's evening in a Paris brought to a standstill during a strike. Where the music at the beginning of Trouble Every Day is a threnody, a hymn to the dark side; Friday Night (scored specifically by Tindersticks' violinist Dickon Hinchliffe) doesn’t always hint at happier possibilities the film works towards. There is in much of Tindersticks’ music what Denis admits she so admires, and which is central to her own films, and it is that which makes the collaboration so successful. It is the “the strange mixture of violence and tenderness” she notes in a recent Independent interview. Friday Night opens with the sound of an organ that gives us a sense of the sort of troubling loneliness that could lead an isolated woman like Lemercier towards a slasher demise. Yet the music isn’t unfitting; it is more that it utterly refuses to cue us to second-guess what the film will be about. And it isn’t wrong-footing us either; it isn’t as if one senses Denis asked for a score that would lull anyone into a false sense of security. The film’s score often possesses that sense of danger, as if it was interested in reflecting a twofold threat for this woman who embarks on a night of affection with a stranger whilst in a relationship with a partner Lemercier is about to move in with. Who is this stranger and will it jeopardize what she has with her partner? But the film also dissolves the twin risks. The central character has a night of sex, and seems internally liberated by the experience. At the end of the film we see her running in slow motion, a beatific look on her face and the music loses any trace of the menacing to become lyrically hopeful.
Perhaps the most lyrically hopeful of all their work with Denis was the band’s first soundtrack, Nenette and Boni, yet the song everybody remembers from the film is Tiny Tears, with its lyrics: “Tiny tears make up an ocean. How can you hurt someone so much, you’re supposed to care for? Someone you said you'd always be there for.” It is as though the band cannot, like the filmmaker, settle for the singularity of a feeling, and this is partly why their work stands up so well as both soundtracks for a film and music that works outwith its narrative context. In his book Audio Vision, sound and music theorist Michel Chion notes the difference between what he calls “empathetic and anempathetic effects”: music that creates empathy in the scene or music that creates indifference to the situation. The former falls comfortably into codes that direct our feelings: so we feel, say, sad or happy. But in anempathetic effects “this juxtaposition of scene with indifferent music has the effect not of freezing emotion but rather of intensifying it, by inscribing it on a cosmic background.” Maybe the brilliance of Tindersticks’ music is that it manages simultaneously to be empathetic and anempathetic: capable of feeling with the characters but also working against musical identification that puts us so singularly into the feelings of a character that when the music is extracted from the film there is nothing left.
A good example of this feeling with with character but not quite for the character comes from the early scene in 35 Shots of Rum. It could have been a piece introducing us to the sad and lonely life of the central character played by Alex Descas, but as the film also shows us shots of his daughter and a fellow train driver, without us yet knowing the relationship between the three of them, we are in an emotion so much greater than any singularity of character or event. If film music cannot hold up on its own, it is because of the singular way in which it cues into character and situation, leaving no imaginative freeplay within the music: it becomes too readily, in Chion’s terms, empathetic. Staples says in an interview in CWAS, “It’s not a coincidence. There’s something between her [Claire Denis] and the way she works and sees things and makes films that crosses what we do. I can’t put my finger on it, but it makes perfect sense.” Part of it resides in music that seems full of feeling without arriving at the sentimental; it isn’t there purely to be placed on top of the images. As Mike Figgis says in an article in the book Soundscape: most composers will usually go to “one screening and then he’ll have a tape, a time-coded cassette of the film, and he’ll go away and work in sort of factory mode, having had detailed expert advice from the studio executives.” When Staples and Denis first met however, she asked if she could use one of their songs. “Stuart seemed intrigued by the idea and suggested that instead of just giving me the song, they could get more involved, so I invited them to Marseille where I was shooting.” (The Independent) It is as though the more engaged the band were in Denis’ films, the more the music could also be their own. This isn’t at all to decry music that works only within the context of film, and cannot but invoke its images when we hear the music (Jaws, Psycho etc.). It is more to illustrate why an evening with film clips playing behind Tindersticks performing their music can be such a distinctive and full experience rather than a gimmicky reminder of the films’ great moments.