Georges Delerue’s music for the films of Francois Truffaut

In a span of twenty four years between 1959 and 1983 composer Georges Delerue collaborated with director Francois Truffaut on ten films. Compared to Delerue’s massive repertoire of film, TV scores and classical compositions, 350(!) in all, ten is an iota. But the music he wrote for Truffaut is unique in its beauty and the critical role it plays in the films. Rarely in the history of cinema had the combination of visuals and music worked so well together. Truffaut and Delerue belong in a pantheon that includes duos such as Fellini/Rota and Hitchcock/Hermann. This is the story of that collaboration, with a focus on their creative peak, Jules and Jim.

Delerue Truffaut

In 1945 Delerue moved to Paris to study at the Conservatoire de Paris, where two years later he met composer Darius Milhaud. The famed modern classical composer, who was of Jewish origin, returned to France after he escaped the Nazi regime in 1940 and spent time composing and teaching in the United States. Milhaud had a profound influence on musicians on both sides of the pond. Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach are two of his famous students at Mills College in California. By the time Delerue met Milhaud he was already steeped in the classical music repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, but he was also exposed to the lighter side of music, playing dance and jazz tunes in functions to make a living. Milhaud noticed Delerue’s ability to move effortlessly between both sides of the music spectrum and encouraged his student to pursue a career of composing for the performance arts – theater, dance and films. Delerue remembers: “He was a man open to all walks of life. I was shy, complex. I knew nothing as the little provincial who had landed in Paris in the midst of the war. Milhaud practically threw me into an environment other than purely musical. It would have been difficult to have this opening to the world if I  had stayed in my corner to compose symphonies.”

Darius Milhaud · Paris Conservatoire

Darius Milhaud

In the 1950s Delerue started his prolific career, composing music for TV and short films and quickly made his way into the emerging French New Wave cinema. His first foray into the movement was with Alain Renais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. The film’s main composer was Giovanni Fusco (of Antonioni’s Red Desert), and Delerue added his touch to some of the scenes, including the endearing Parisian waltz Valse du café du fleuve. 

The late 1950s saw the new directors of French cinema falling in love with American jazz. Louis Malle’s 1958 debut Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), a tribute to film noir, got a mesmerizing musical backdrop from Miles Davis who improvised to the moving images. A year later Martial Solal provided a big band jazz soundtrack to Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic debut À Bout de Souffle (Breathless).

French Directors

Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle and Roman Polanski

Delerue and Truffaut’s first collaboration was on the director’s second film Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player). Released in 1960, the soundtrack was rooted in jazz as well, but of the French style. Truffaut was unhappy with the music for his first film Les 400 Coups (The 400 Blows), written by Jean Constantin, and was looking for a different composer. They met when Delerue was invited to a screening of the movie: “The projection began and the more the film advanced, the more anxious I was. I loved this film very much: Aznavour was great, Marie Dubois so endearing, all characters perfectly in their place, only there was a big problem. The film was very musical but we could not hear any music: it had been shot without playback. We saw Aznavour playing the piano but we did not hear anything, same thing for the bassist and the drummer. All that was seen was the hands of Aznavour on the piano, and his movements of shoulders. He was supposed to play jazz. I was required during the editing to reconstruct a music only according to the rhythm of the movements. After Shoot the Pianist I felt ready to face anything!” Here is how the scene ended up in the final movie. I would say he did pretty well:

Shoot The Piano Player poster

François Truffaut’s next film was Jules and Jim and it needed a vastly different soundtrack. The ultra modern and scandalous love triangle at the heart of the movie caused an uproar with Catholics who asked to ban the film for moral perversion. The shifting moods of the characters required a score that alternated between lush orchestral arrangements, lovely French melodies and dramatic, dark themes. Delerue delivered brilliant music for the film, a score for a ages, one that placed him at the forefront of French new wave cinema composers along with the likes of Michel Legrand and Pierre Jansen (Claude Chabrol’s composer for 30 years). Truffaut recognized the significance of Delerue’s music and went to great lengths to accommodate it in the movie. Claudine Bouché, who was film editor on many of Truffaut’s films, remembers: “We got Georges Delerue’s music, which was very beautiful. When we listened to the mix of music and voice-over, things got complicated. Sometimes the fortes were too loud and covered the narration. And Francois wouldn’t consider giving up these musical moments, which were so beautiful and lyrical. For the scene were Catherine picks Jim up at the station after the war and takes him back to the chalet, there was very beautiful music. To work in Michel Subor’s (the narrator) voice, the narration had to be rerecorded in relation to the music.”

Jules Et Jim Poster

Delerue said of the soundtrack to Jules and Jim: “At that time (the New Wave), there were two schools: a tendency to make film music extremely faithful to images and actions, and another that on the contrary, encouraged a great detachment, a great distance from the image. I preferred to go in the second direction, looking for a style that was a counterpoint to the image.” The music he set to the film’s opening titles reminds me of Nino Rota and his use of a rhythmic brass accompaniment to an energetic melody.

The Finale on the other hand is a brooding orchestral arrangement that reflects on the tragic ending of the movie. 

The accompaniment to the scenes with Catherine and Jim is mysterious, foretelling the tragedy to come. Delerue’s deep background in studying the best of classical romantic music is manifested in the string arrangements he wrote here.

Delerue Truffaut3

Over the next twenty years Delerue and Truffaut continued to collaborate on and off, yielding eight more movies together. The soundtracks remained consistently great, but some hold special beauty for me. For Soft Skin, released in 1964, again a tragic story that required dramatic and mysterious music, Delerue wrote stunning melodies for the various scenes, among them Pierre et Nicole. 

Seven years have passed before the two joined forces again in 1971 for the movie Two English Girls. Truffaut has a thing for doomed love entanglements that lead to tragic endings. Delerue writes the perfect music for these predicaments, as in La Declaration d’amour. 

Truffaut tackled a different topic in his 1980 film Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro), a historical drama set in Paris during the Nazi occupation, a more positive and hopeful story for a change. The movie got a matching score with lush orchestral arrangements, for example the ending credits. The movie swept the César Awards that year, including the music award for Delerue. 

Truaffaut could not stay away from a fatalistic love story and his next film La Femme d’à Côté (The Woman Next Door) got another lush and eerie treatment from Delerue, as in Le Secret de Madame Jouve.

Truffaut said this of the role of a composer in film making: “It’s very difficult for a musician to make music for a film, because he is shown a film at a stage of the assembly where the lengths are false, the rhythm is not there. It seems as it is the film, but it is far from the final result. I think you really have to know the cinema and really love it so that you can see the film at that stage and imagine its intentions and its qualities. The musician is called at a time when the director is a little demoralized. We count a lot on him. We say all the time in the editing rooms: “it will work out with the music!” In short, we wait for the musician as we wait for a sort of savior. I’ve always been very happy whenever Delerue arrived in my movies. I always felt that the film was coming to life.”

Goerges Delerue

Delerue had one of the most prolific runs of film scoring in the history of the field. In a career that spanned over forty years, he wrote, arranged and conducted more than 200 feature films. Between 1950 and 1992 only a single year passed without a film score credit to his name. In 1963 he wrote a wonderful orchestral score to Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mépris (Contempt), starring Brigitte Bardot as Camille. The theme music he wrote for her scenes is one of the highlights of French New Wave cinema, one that Martin Scorsese felt compelled to use for the end theme of his film Casino 32 years later.

1964 was a peak year for Delerue, with no less than fifteen films released that year with his film scores. He worked with the top directors of French New Wave and European cinema: Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Renais, Louis Malle, Claude Berri, Jules Dassin, Costa Gavras, Bernardo Bertolucci. After winning an Oscar in 1979 for A Little Romance, he moved to Hollywood in the early 1980s and worked with the best of American directors: Mike Nichols (Silkwood), Bruce Beresford (Crimes of the Heart), Norman Jewison (Agnes of God) and Oliver Stone (Salvador, Platoon) to name a few.

In 1966 Ken Russell directed the now obscure movie Don’t Shoot the Composer, a satire about a BBC film unit making a documentary about a famous French composer. The movie featured Delerue as the composer, with a priceless scene of him demonstrating various themes he is writing on a piano. 

Russell said of Delerue: “He came to my attention in Jules et Jim and the score to that film was as important as the film itself. The lyrical quality that he brought to three people on bicycles riding though the countryside was absolute magic. Nobody else, no other film composer I know of at the time, could possibly have achieved that. Georges had a unique talent that every director is looking for, the ability to enhance the director’s work. If you had a comedy scene and it wasn’t as funny as you would have liked it to be, Georges could make it funnier. If you wanted to evoke a beautiful sunny day and it was raining, George’s music could bring the sun out. Now not many people can do that.”Don't Shoot The Composer - DelerueI keep coming back to Jules and Jim. For me this film score defines the music of Georges Delerue. One of best themes ever written for cinema is the one he wrote for the scenes that show Jules (Oskar Werner), Jim (Henri Serre) and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) roaming the French country side. At the beginning of the film the unlikely trio is carefree and enjoying their time together as they go to the beach, a scene for which Delerue wrote a lighthearted theme. As the film progresses and complex layers are revealed in the relationships between the three, a darker tone sets in within the theme. Truffaut explains: “It was a film about the passing of time, about nature. It brings us back to the holiday theme, because the main themes of Jules and Jim were gay moments and sad moments. We had decided among ourselves, with our vocabulary, that all gay moments would be the theme Vacances (Holiday), and sad moments the theme Brouillard (Fog). I think this theme “holiday” has been really successful, since it expresses a kind of joy of life: one feels nature, one feels the sun, we feel that it is vast … I find it lyrical.” From a wonderful album dedicated to the music of Georges Delerue, released in 1997 on Nonesuch Records, here are the variations on that theme:



If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these about other collaborations between film directors and composers:



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