Arsène Lupin was the creation of the prolific French writer Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941), the character being an aristocratic gentleman thief, rogue, adventurer and anti-hero sufficiently popular to feature in well over a dozen films and television series inspired by Leblanc's original 20 novels. (There were also five sequels by the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the talent behind Les Diaboliques and Vertigo.)
The latest film comes courtesy of French filmmaker Jean-Paul Salomé, whose previous feature was an updated version of Belphégor - Le fantôme du Louvre, taken from the fantasy adventure novel by Leblanc's contemporary Arthur Bernède (1971-1937). Where that film had a score by French composer Bruno Coulais, this time musical duties have fallen to England's Debbie Wiseman, who has excelled herself given her first opportunity to write a really large scale blockbuster scale romantic action score.
Wiseman has always had a fine facility for melody, and this does not desert her here. The result is a thrilling 70 minute powerhouse of Gothic adventure scoring for chorus and orchestra (expert brass and percussion writing to the for) which, like the film itself, and indeed like the recent Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow scored by Edward Shearmur, pays homage to film music's past while retaining a modern sensibility.
The album opens with a song, co-written by Wiseman and performed by the enigmatically named 'M' Mathieu Chedid which is something along the lines of a retro homage to Francois Lai's 1970's retro homages to 1930's French song, complete with modern-ish production including electric guitar. Presumably this plays over the end titles of the film, and while apparently out of keeping with the period of the film is rather more palatable than most current movie songs.
Then the score begins, and as it unfolds two things rapidly become apparent. First that it benefits greatly from the first class performances of an orchestra as august as the Royal Philharmonic – Wiseman now works with the orchestra regularly and indeed gives concerts of her music with the RPO. Second, where much current blockbuster film music is all too generic, here is music with real personality; it can not be a coincidence that Wiseman orchestrated and conducted her music herself, where so many film scores are produced in such desperate haste whole armies of orchestrators are employed, giving the end result something of a homogenous sound regardless of the composer.
No such problems here, as Wiseman delivers a very large scale score rich in themes from high adventure to all out Gothic fury and tender fairytale romance; away from the action 'The Mask of Prince Sernine' is a charming fantasy affair and 'The Ballroom' is an expert waltz pastiche. One might on occasion wonder what music the film was originally temp tracked with, as similarities to the thunderous propulsive creation sequence music from Patrick Doyle's score for Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein can be discerned in a cue such as 'Arsene et Beaumagnan', magisterially swirling strings akin to Elliot Goldenthall's Alien3 make an appearance on occasion, or we are swept along with an dynamism owning just a little to Danny Elfman's Batman or Adrian Johnson's Shackleton. There are also suggestions of John Barry's 'Capsule in Space' from You Only Live Twice in 'Le Grand Café' and the lonely trumpet of Nino Rota's The Godfather waltz in the opening of 'Goodbye Mother' and 'The Blue Lupin'. But whether the result of temp tracking, or homages, conscious or not, these elements simply add to the rich mix of a score which is not in any case seeking to break barriers, but cast an affectionate eye on the glory days of pulp adventure cinema. Hence we are treated to the exotic use of cimbalom, always effective for evoking espionage since the days of Barry's The IPCRESS File, in both suspense and blistering action modes – 'The Theft of the Crucifix' is a set-piece of rare ferocity which remains musically coherent and compelling throughout.
I could describe the disc track by track, or save you time by saying the entire album is almost an embarrassment of elegant riches with every cue revealing fresh, boldly conceived musical delights. The melodic sensibility which gave us My Uncle Silas, Wilde, Tom's Midnight Garden, Haunted and many more is still here, but now is coupled with a new sense of scale, grandeur and confidence which demonstrates the very impressive range and invention of Wiseman's compositional talent.
If it were not already clear (with superb work ranging from Wilde to Warriors and most points between), this disc should make it amply so that Wiseman is one of the finest, most versatile, melodically and technically accomplished film composers currently working. Whether or not this is her best score or not will have to wait until the film is available for viewing in the UK, but it has certainly resulted in her most enthralling score album to-date, the sort of sweeping epic romantic action writing which will surely win over converts who might have found previous scores from the composer too small or intimate for their liking. There may not be the artistic seriousness of Warriors here, but that is hardly the point, as a listening experience the disc gives the greatest pleasure of any Wiseman score release to date. Not only that, but half-way through November it is easily among the best of the couple of hundred new albums I've heard so far in 2004.