Bel Ami is a historical romantic drama based on the 1885 novel by Guy de Maupassant. Directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the film is set in Paris in the late 1880s and stars Robert Pattinson as the amoral Georges Duroy, a journalist for the newspaper La Vie Française, who rises from being a junior officer in the French Army in Algeria, to being one of the most powerful and influential men in the city, which he achieves by manipulating a series of well-connected, intelligent, and wealthy mistresses. The film also stars Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci as the women Duroy takes advantage of - both morally, socially and sexually - as he makes his ascent through the decadent world of the rich and the privileged. The film's equally rich and decadent score is by Lakshman Joseph de Saram and Rachel Portman, who share composing duties equally between them.
Portman, of course, is the Oscar-winning composer of such similar period romances as Emma and The Duchess. This is familiar territory for her. The name Lakshman Joseph de Saram, however, is likely to be wholly unfamiliar to film music fans. He is a composer from Sri Lanka who attended the Manhattan School of Music, founded the Chamber Music Society of Colombo in his home country, and is now one of the leading musical lights of the Tamil-language film industry, with several high profile scores to his name. He grew up surrounded by western classical music and film scores, professing a personal admiration for everyone from Shostakovich to Ennio Morricone, and became attached to Bel Ami through producer Uberto Pasolini - Rachel Portman's husband - who wrote and directed the Tamil film Machan in 2008, which Lakshman scored. It seems rather incongruous that a composer from Sri Lanka would be chosen to score a film set in 18th century France, but much like his contemporary A. R. Rahman, Lakshman is not a stereotypical "Indian Subcontinent" composer: there are no sitars to be found here. Instead, both Portman and Lakshman inhabit a completely classical world, providing the film with light, graceful, elegant orchestral music that perfectly captures the world Duroy inhabits, and the women he woos.
The whole score is orchestral, with heavy emphasis on strings, and with a pervading emotional aspect that can best be described as `tragic romance', although there are moments of lightness and classical pastiche to be heard too, ensuring that the score never becomes overly-saturated with dense emotion. Portman's signature contribution is the main theme, heard in the opening track "Bel Ami", and thereafter in cues such as "Poverty", "She Won't Be a Widow for Long", "Head of Gossip/La Vie Française" and "Georges Elopes With Suzanne". It's a driving, quite powerful piece, with a staccato string undercurrent, accentuated with low-register woodwinds, and overlaid with a dance-like violin figure that is thoroughly beautiful. It's a prototypical Portman piece, clearly built around similar rhythms and meters as several of her other famous themes, but somehow Bel Ami seems more forceful and bold than much of her earlier work, which is very pleasing.
Elsewhere, the elegant dance in "Whose Arms Are These?" has a touch of comedy about it, with pizzicato violins and a waltz-like beat in the woodwinds, giving the audience a nod and a wink, seemingly treating Duroy's sexual conquests as a bit of light-hearted scandal. Conversely, some cues drip with tragedy and even occasional anger, such as the aforementioned "She Won't Be a Widow for Long", "A Fool", "You Disgust Me" and especially the lachrymose "Charles Dies", which contains a piano and oboe duet that is most effectively - and attractively - downbeat. Later, the unexpectedly dark "Betrayal/Virginie Submits" has a down-in-the-depths performance of the main theme for the woodwinds that is surprisingly sinister. In each of these more tragic cues, Portman plays around with fragments of the main theme, never fully restating the melody, but instead shifting around three or four notes here and there, as if insinuating that, because Duroy's life is broken, the melody that accompanies him is too.
Lakshman's contributions are not as thematically-oriented as Portman's, and instead breathe life into the rest of the score, moving in and around Portman's thematic core through several standalone cues, some of which are breathtakingly lovely. Several of his cues contain fragile violin solos (understandably, as Lakshman is himself is a violinist), and on the whole he tends to score the lighter, more romantic and upbeat aspects of the score, in contrast to Portman's more dramatic efforts. Cues such as "Love Nest" have a wry, sprightly feel, with a twinkle in their proverbial eye, capturing the effortless charm with which Duroy seduces the woman around him. Others, such as the lovely "A More Memorable Name", feature mischievous pizzicatos accompanied sardonic woodwind accents that gently evoke a playful mood. Elsewhere, the old-fashioned pair "La Vie Française/Celebration" and "Rousset's Party" have an über-classical feel, as though they could have been written during the time period, for the in-house string quartet of an Imperial palace.
The theme in "Clotilde", for Christina Ricci's character, is stunning: an idyllic, romantic piano, string and woodwind combination that speaks of innocence, quiet beauty, and gentle romance, and is probably the best cue on the album. Later, the theme for Uma Thurman's character, "Madeleine", while not quite as wholesome as Clotilde's, maintains an overarching characteristic of powerful romantic love, achieved through yet another beautiful setting for strings and woodwinds. That's not to say that all of Lakshman's music is happy classical pastiche: on the contrary, "Beggar/Charles is Dying" and "The Man I Have Lost" contain some appropriately morose textures, often with a moody piano element at its core. It speaks much of Lakshman's talent that, despite his relative inexperience in film music terms, he has the dramatic sensibility to capture an array of emotional contexts.
Everything comes back to the main theme in the conclusive "It's Not Enough To Be Loved/The Wedding/Bel Ami Reprise", the longest cue on the album at over 5 minutes, which opens with a soft oboe and harp duet, picks up a haunting cello solo performance accentuated by hushed piano chords, and moves briefly into the more turbulent and downbeat `tragedy' material, before finishing the score with a full statement of the gorgeous main theme.
With the exception of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan last year, it's been quite a while since a Rachel Portman score has impressed me this much upon a first listen, and more importantly stayed with me after repeated listens, earmarking Bel Ami as a score worth seeking out. We haven't heard a theme from her with such classical elegance and emotional thrust for several years, and it's wonderful to see her back at the top of her game. More important for me, however, is the discovery of Lakshman Joseph de Saram as a composer of real talent and class. Unfortunately, Western audiences still have this pervading opinion that Indian-based composers are only capable of one type of music - the upbeat, jolly dance tunes heard in a thousand Bollywood musicals each year - to the extent that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many still think that A. R. Rahman is a one-trick pony who only won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire by being in the right place at the right time. Hopefully, Rahman's continued musical expression across different genres in Hollywood, as well as Lakshman's exquisite music here, will go some way to correcting this erroneous opinion, paving the way for other serious Indian film music composers to shine on the global stage.