Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Label: Decca
Suggested Retail Prices: $ 14.99
Grade: A

With such memorable works as Girl with a Pearl Earring, Syriana, Hostage and Birth, French composer Alexandre Desplat has shown a real ear for mystery that can be as beautifully dark as it is exotically intriguing. It’s a talent that proves to be another winning combination for Lust / Caution, his palpably erotic score for Ang Lee’s NC-17 WW2 spy drama. But unlike this year’s similarly themed Black Book, Lust’s flesh-baring tale of female espionage is decidedly more depressing. As usual for Lee, Lust / Caution is heavy (and long) psychological going, where the protagonists are undone by some truly heavy petting. Thankfully, Alexandre Desplat’s score gives us the film noir satisfaction that Lust is intent on not getting up, in spite of its numerous, angry sex scenes.

Desplat is a true master of playing a film’s subtext, as well as its atmosphere. And he’s certainly got a lot to work with here, as Ang Lee has loaded Lust / Caution with a Hitchcockian vibe of love and betrayal that would be right at home in his WW2 thriller Notorious (though its Suspicion that plays onscreen here). Lust is a slow, sinister dance between an enemy agent and the woman who’s sent in to set up his death – with her allure as the weapon – something which Desplat picks up on by conjuring a waltz rhythm. Glamorous smoke also blows through the screen as freely as air, and Desplat grabs the film’s visual strengths to create an enticing fatalism, the kind of music that’s drawn glamorous dames and bad men together since the day black and white was applied to film noir.

The fact that this is taking place in Japanese-occupied Shanghai is mostly immaterial to Desplat’s approach. Like his last China-set score for The Painted Veil, Lust / Caution uses subtle Oriental flavors to favor a more classically symphonic “thriller” sound. Everything is as delicate and poised as the two characters eye each other suspiciously before ripping off their elegant clothes. And like its score noir cousins Body Heat and Basic Instinct, Lust / Caution generates a palpable, erotic beauty in the build-up. But like the film’s title, Desplat never lets his music give in to real pleasure. Even during the slaphappy bump and grind, Desplat is playing sadness and danger, letting the characters’ agonized whimpers taking care of the more carnal sounds.

Increasingly few composers can write great themes – or themes alone for that matter. Perhaps it’s a French thing, but Desplat continues to impress as one of the great melody-makers working in film today. Lust / Caution once again brings out numerous, hypnotically memorable themes, all tinged with a gossamer sadness that tells us things aren’t going to end well for anyone here. But at least musically, it will be a dangerously sensual ride to the end of the affair. Desplat creates an enormously suspenseful score without obviously trying for it, knowing how to use light strings, wind instruments and bells to sound like the rustle of clothes against anticipating flesh. And in other cues, the orchestra hangs ominously over the characters, its danger played like a breathlessly beating heart.

While Ang Lee’s Lust / Caution remains too cool for school in the end (despite its over-explicit sex), elegant restraint proves to be the key to Desplat’s excellent score. His is the true power of suggestion, when a melodrama’s delicately plucked harp, lightly-played strings, and memorable themes did more to get a rise out of moviegoers than the sight of the actors’ sweaty bodies tangled in Twister-like intercourse. Indeed, classy make-out music doesn’t get better than this.

To buy the Lust / Caution soundtrack, click here.