Part of my Le Cercle Rouge Tribute week at Harry Moseby Confidential.
I know the term ‘cool’ had been created long before Eric Demarsan stepped into a French studio in 1970 to score Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful Le Cercle Rouge but everytime I watch the film or listen to the soundtrack album it feels like the word was invented for both.
Calculated, coolly seductive and chilling, just like the movie it was written for, Demarsan’s score is one of the best to ever grace a French film, a twenty-five song powerhouse of horn driven jazzy interludes and strangely unsettling vibraphone driven exercises of solitude.
Demarsan recalled to interviewer Stephane Lerouge in the liner notes to Universal’s essential French reissue that the music of Le Cercle Rouge was designed to “give you the feeling of being trapped” and was based on the “idea of fate.” With that thought, Demarsan goes a long way towards describing the sound of his most remarkable score.
Melville initially hired legendary Michel Legrand to score his epic crime film but after hearing Legrand’s initial compostitions he realized he had made a mistake and reconnected with Demarsan, the novice composer who had done such a shockingly good job on his 1969 film Army of Shadows.
Demarsan was born in France in October of 1938. Even though his father was immersed in the business world, Demarsan had some music in his background as his Grandmother was a painter who was interested in the piano. He began taking piano lessons just before his thirteenth year and instantly excelled at it and just over five years later was playing various Pariasian nightclubs with a popular Jazz quartette.
To help support himself and get closer to the cinema that he was falling more and more in love with, the budding composer began scoring French commercials in the early to mid sixties. This led to orchestration duties on some French television and in the mid sixties he scored a major assignment with iconic French composer François de Roubaix that would lead him to the attention of several directors, including Melville who would give him his first full composing job for a feature with the aforementioned Army of Shadows.
After Melville’s untimely death in 1973, Demarsan began working prolifically for a large variety of French and European filmmakers including Costa-Gavras and Jean-Pierre Mocky. He continues to be an in demand composer to this day in France, with his most recent credits alternating between features and the television work that he got his start in.
It can be argued that Demarsan peaked with his work for Melville, but that shouldn’t take away from what has been an extremely successful career. Perhaps the two were just made for each other and there simply wasn’t another filmmaker who could match the painterly like majesty of his scores like Melville could. Whatever the reason, Demarsan’s most influential work can be heard on Le Cercle Rouge, a real masterpiece of a record marked not only by expert compositions but also by the expert playing of the band Demarsan assembled (with special mention going to Bernard Lubat’s Vibraphone work).
Joining Demarsan in the Davout Studio in October of 1970 along with Lubat are Daniel Humair on percussion, Guy Pedersen on Bass, Georges Arvanitas on piano, Raymond Guiot on flute and Joss Baselli on the accordion. Together they create a rich sound that has gone onto to influence everyone from Roubaix himself to bands like Saint Etienne. The soundtrack, along with Roubaix’s score for Le Samourai, would have such an influence that in 2002 a group of musicians (including Saint Etienne, April March and Helena Noguerra) would record an entire album entitled Tribute to Alain Delon and Jean-Pierre Melville, that was fittingly not as good as the scores that inspired it.
The excellent remastered CD to Le Cercle Rouge is getting harder and harder to find but copies are still available online for those interested. A compilation, including some moments from the film is still in print and is more readily available but alas not as essential.
Demarsan admits in the CD booklet of Le Cercle Rouge that he was the only composer that Melville "ever worked with twice" and that he feels "a certain pride in having Melville" as his "first film director". It was a match made in heaven and both the film and soundtrack of Le Cercle Rouge are major masterpieces from two artists at the top of their game.