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The Claude Chabrol Project

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Claude Chabrol on Pierre Jansen

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From an interview with Claude Chabrol conducted by Stéphane Lerouge

Text copyright © Stéphane Lerouge.

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    Darius Milhaud had agreed to write the music for my first feature film in 1957, Le Beau Serge, but unfortunately he became very seriously ill. My editor on the film then suggested a composer from Nice, who bungled a score that was so mediocre it was indecent. So I moved on and worked with Paul Misraki for three films: it was a smiling collaboration with a man who was always courteous, a beautiful human being. When I did Les Bonnes femmes I knew someone who knew someone, and that someone knew Pierre Jansen, and mentioned him to me. We met one day, he was exactly the same age as me, and he’d never written music for a film before. I sang him a bit of Stravinsky’s “Apollon-Musagète” and he was dumb-struck! So Jansen and Misraki shared my bonnes femmes: Jansen did the symphonic parts, and Misraki wrote the popular tunes. My producers, the Hakim brothers, were frightened by Pierre’s work. It was all very well them saying “Musically, it’s exceptional, ex-cep-tional!” but you should have seen the look on their faces…Secretly, I was smiling, I was very happy I’d found a brother musician.

    That’s how I went from a refined melody writer to a more contemporary composer from the modern music milieu. More or less consciously, I also felt that my films ought to take a more abstract path. Jansen accompanied me in this direction, and even made it more intense…For me, in a film, the music has a mission that’s not to create emotion, but rather something else, an additional state. That’s what Pierre always brought me with his folly, his excessiveness…That said, he was very hard-core when I met him, a little ayatollah of dodecaphonic music. Next to Jansen, Boulez was a ballet dancer in a tutu! (Laughter.) Little by little, in talking to each other, we got to know each other better and we opened up a bit. I got him to appreciate Britten’s qualities, although he was quite prejudiced at first. I also managed to move him towards an expression that didn’t come naturally to him, with the ‘1900’ waltzes in Landru, the Kurt Weill-type theme in L’Oeil du malin, the baroque concertino in Docteur Popaul…In that type of exercise, Pierre always knew how to put in that little note that said “I’m not being fooled by what I’m writing!”

    My point of departure was often a composer, Mahler, Shostakovitch, Stravinski, or else a certain timbre. It was Pierre who pushed me that way too: he always managed to get me to suggest to him what he wanted to write anyway! (Laughter.) Like the organ in La Décade prodigieuse: “Orson Welles is God, you understand, so you might as well have an organ…” Or in Le Boucher: “I’d like music that can work with the sounds in the village, especially the church bells…” And there he jumped at the idea of the bells, and transcended it completely. I adore that score; it makes my film’s pictures of realism take off, and carries them into the fantastic. Surrounded by twisted percussion and electric guitars, the Jean Yanne character takes on the dimensions of a vampire. That’s the Jansen effect! In twenty years he’s never written just a ‘little’ piece of music for me. He’s made my films richer by developing unusual orchestral ideas, ideas that are demanding if not completely nuts. And that’s fine by me, I’m never satisfied by suave notes one after the other. You know what I mean! (Laughter.)

    Over the years, we reached the point where we understood each other just with a look, half a word, a half-tone. After each screening of the rushes, he was very reverent. He never said: “What a mess!” Yet I knew instinctively if he liked a film or not. The studio sessions also left me with some great memories. In the beginning we recorded with the pictures on a screen. Then we mutually agreed to drop it: the method was backward, we had to get away from the film, practically forget it. There was no point in using Hollywood methods when Jansen was the antithesis of the Hollywood composer. Sometimes, when I was discovering some musical numbers, I said to myself: “What? That’s strange, that isn’t going to work…” And then when we mixed it I realized that he was right: Jansen was ahead of me all the time, he had a lead over me when it came to the relationship between the picture and the sound. Film after film we really dug into it, deepening our work in common…let’s be daring and call it ‘a work.’ For example, take Juste avant la nuit: I adored a little cell lasting two bars which I won’t sing for you. I thought it was under-exploited, I was frustrated by the way it was treated. So for the next film, La Décade prodigieuse, I said to Pierre: “You could go a bit further with those two bars!” He jumped at the chance, and it was one of the starting-points for his grandiose concerted symphony. It still shatters me: it’s music for a film, and it’s a work of music all on its own, like a concert piece. It’s a hell of an exploit in a superbly screwed-up film that I’m extremely careful to avoid seeing today . . .

    Jansen is a gangling character, but when he’s composing he shows the precision of a mathematician. In real life he’s a jiggling clown, he’s all movement, fluid or jumpy, and he has a mad laugh. He took up smoking a pipe once, with Belgian tobacco that had an absolutely foul smell, and I said to him: “That stuff stinks like cow-pat!” So Pierre said: “I don’t care, it’s my favorite tobacco!” “What about other people?” I asked. “What others?” he said. “People who like me can stand the smell of my pipe!” (Laughter.) I’ve seen him fly off the handle, too, sometimes pretending, sometimes quite genuinely. But even when he’s serious, there’s always a little bit of play-acting there, a part that’s excess. Pierre is a great joker: his outbursts are always funny and picturesque. I can see him now cursing his publisher for being stingy over the number of French horns, or swearing at a fellow composer who was conducting his music for a film made up of sketches, Les Sept péchés capitaux: Jansen was foaming at the mouth: “Get that fool out of here!” Another time he was mad at a friend of his, André Girard, who conducted the orchestra: “Stop it! You have to play what I wrote!” He stormed out of the sound-booth, but once he was in front of the musicians he became as gentle as a lamb, he was as shy as a little boy again. As if the cabin window was some kind of protection for him…

    I derived great pleasure from those hours spent with Jansen, the pleasure of being alongside busy musicians in the middle of accomplishing their art. I’ve sometimes said that if I hadn’t become a film director, I’d like to have been a conductor. To pull all those collective energies together…like mixing, which is a stage in filmmaking that I love, where you mix scattered sound elements to create a homogenous whole.

    Today I work with my son, Matthieu Chabrol. My relationship with music has changed, I’m in a period that’s more deceitful, thriftier. Pierre’s music hasn’t the slightest deceit in it, it asserts itself frontally. From one film to the next, I tighten the screws on my son: in the latest one he wrote ten minutes for six musicians. It’s getting austere, we’re a long way from the flamboyant things of the Jansen era! (Laughter.) In retrospect, my work with Pierre also sets apart a whole period in my life…we were a real group, with Génovès for the production, Gégauff for the film script, Jansen for the music…The tone, the spirit of my films is no longer quite the same today. But Pierre’s writing, his orchestral inventions, remain inseparable from every film I made for twenty years. And I even spared him the scores for two films, Les Magiciens and Folies Bourgeoises. Two of my worst, as if by accident…I hope he thanks me for it, the rascal!

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    The Claude Chabrol Project
    Text Copyright © Stéphane Lerouge