Tindersticks had two albums of largely downtempo chamber pop under their belts when French filmmaker Claire Denis approached them after a concert to ask about recording a soundtrack for her 1996 film Nénette et Boni. It turned out to be a fateful meeting, as the collaboration has yielded positive results for both: working on instrumental music arguably helped change how the band approached their studio albums, and many of Denis’ films derive a great deal of their emotional thrust from Tindersticks’ music. Members Stuart Staples and Dickon Hincliffe have since recorded three more soundtracks for Denis together and two more separately. All six of these works have been packaged together by Constellation in a box set entitled Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009, which shows a much more varied and exploratory side of the group than the studio albums alone. It might also win them some new fans.
Although the band seemed to be in sync with Denis from the beginning, with music that seamlessly matched the alternating playful and serious tone of Nénette, listening to the albums in chronological order reveals how much more innovative and exploratory they became with each film. While the first two, Nénette and Trouble Every Day, sound the most like other Tindersticks albums — especially when the former incorporates a song from their second release — Staples’ music for 2004’s L’Intrus is distinctly his own. By 2009’s White Material, most traces of the group’s early romantic lounge act have disappeared. This is indicative of how comfortable and assured the director and musicians must have felt working together. And even at their most Tinderschticky, the soundtracks have a personality all their own, appropriately matching the films’ varied themes: Néntte is romantic, nostalgic; Trouble Every Day eerie and stark; Vendredi Soir lush and passionate; L’Intrus mysterious and sinister; 35 Rhums tender and a bit melancholy; and White Material tense and foreboding.
As standalone works, they’re enjoyable to varying degrees. For me, the two most recent soundtracks, 35 Rhums and White Material, stand up best divorced from their original context. One potential problem with soundtrack releases is their repetitious nature and lack of diversity. This is standard for film music, where if it’s doing its job properly, we rarely notice the restated musical themes and motifs as we watch. But listening to such music independent from the film can sometimes be a bit of a slog. This isn’t so much a problem with shorter works like Vendredi Soir, which clocks in at 23 minutes, but three takes on the main theme during the more than 40 minutes of Trouble Every Day is demanding, especially when echoes of it are found elsewhere on the album. While White Material is almost as long, it avoids this grating repetitiveness through more diverse ideas and creative application of instruments, stripping away the orchestration and full band to rely on the subtle use of electric guitar, feedback, droning organ, and mournful violin.
Even more unique is L’Intrus, which for its scant 23 minutes repeatedly returns to a sinister guitar riff underscored by brooding ambient keyboards, occasionally augmented by mournful trumpet and impressionistic drumming. And although it’s by far the least diverse, most repetitive soundtrack here, L’Intrus’ single-mindedness gives it a conceptual feel that makes it stand apart from the others, while its haunted tone and minimalist quality also make it the most hypnotic and unforgettable.
Denis’ use of music in films is never less than appropriate, and very often surprising and inspired. (Her use of pop music is particularly affecting.) It’s the mark of a great filmmaker that her soundtracks are never obtrusive or obvious, yet we remain aware of how well they’re working when things are going well. Though, it wasn’t until I heard this music apart from the images when I realized not only how evocative it was, but also how essential Tindersticks are to the effectiveness of Denis’ work. It’s impossible to hear the opening melodica theme of 35 Rhums and not imagine Alex Descas steering a train through Paris, or “Rumba” from Nénette et Boni and not imagine Vincent Gallo and his wife in their bakery. The music from L’Intus calls up any number of stunning images from that odd, dreamlike film.
Although the limitations of Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009 will make parts of the collection appear inessential for casual listeners, this music will certainly be welcomed by Tindersticks fans and soundtrack buffs. For Denis devotees, it will likely be a testament to one of the great contemporary sound and image collaborations. Indeed, if there was any doubt, this set helps secure their place in the pantheon of great composer/director pairings.