Francis Lai, the French film composer, passed away quietly on the 7th of November, 2018, at the age of 86. From the time I was first introduced to his music, I’ve always considered him to not only be one of the finest composers in the realm of cinema, but also one of the greatest musicians to ever have lived. I’ve honored him with this high personal appreciation for what I believe are good reasons. A talented music director makes me feel the weight of the composition he has created, be it a happy tune or a sad tune or anything in between, with his calculated sway of notes and use of instruments, and Francis Lai was just that.
Lai, known for his innumerable romantic themes mostly in French films, defined and perfected multiple layers to the human emotion of love, including those that we relate to the feeling consciously, as well as those deeper, more intimate, secretive, personal, and captivating undertones that we as listeners usually shy away from and can simply not uncover or analyze with a single listen or two. The tender music that this undoubted genius characterized his body of work with communicates with a mature surety, an understanding of the listener that seems deeper than that of the listener himself.
The core of every film Francis Lai has been a part of has always been its expressive music. Today, I am going to both pay tribute and rank all his best soundtracks in films. We hope that even after his death, Francis Lai’s music will carry on his legacy.
1. Love Story (1970)
Easily Lai’s most popular composition, I first heard his Theme from Love Story come out of a music box my parents had bought back when I was little. I remember feeling like I was taken to another place, at least in my mind, when I heard this music that carried the might of a Beethoven number, though it sounded more emotional. I did not know the title of this song at the time, but I loved listening to it every now and then, and it was the first tune I learned to play on the keyboard. Sounding as simple as it was intricate, this music won Francis Lai his first Academy Award.
Another equally surreal composition from the same film is Snow Frolic, a dreamy tune that to me, feels like it has a hint of sadness to suggest, something to say about a forgotten love, a forgotten place, or a forgotten something you can’t ever recall.
2. Emmanuelle II (1975)
Sexual intimacy is a beautiful thing, because there’s so much poetry, mystery, allure, excitement, and warmth to it. The image of this carnal knowledge is given a musical clarity to with Francis Lai’s theme for the sex film ‘Emmanuelle II’, wherein the cinematography and music direction reign supreme. This particular piece is one I find understands my psyche, and in that, it becomes extremely personal. A good number of Lai’s best works have explored sensuality and the different perceptions we have of it, with a bit of an undercurrent regarding perhaps, what it could really be.
This tune is more climatic in style, with a much more pleasant approach to the same subject discussed in the previous piece. The highs and lows are patient, but they flow ever-so-smoothly to paint a mental picture that’s both serene and evocative.
L’amour D’aimer, the song that plays at the end of the film, encompasses the emotions of both the previous compositions to deliver what I considered for a long time to be my favorite song ever. The mystery rings in Sylvia Kristel’s voice, whose soulful humming and pronunciation both add a level of sexiness to the already erotic atmosphere. The burst at the end is perfection.
3. Love Is A Funny Thing (1968)
Concerto for a Love’s Ending is the sort of music I live for – sublime with apparent meaning, depth, grace, and charm. It’s a sad tune that’s haunted me for many a sleepless night following the first time I heard it. It made me feel something back then, that I find extremely difficult to describe today. There was this hollowness somewhere within me, that awoke then whenever this tune was played to my ears, and I used to feel scared of the sudden emptiness. Beautiful, beautiful music right here.
4. A Man and A Woman (1966)
Claude Lelouch isn’t a director I particularly admire, but the way he outlined this music in his film with the visuals and the color tone is pretty much exactly what comes to my mind when I listen to the piece. Though I do not remember the film in its full, I do recall this scene – two people who will soon fall in love driving about in the hide of the nighttime. That last part is probably what this atmospheric track is all about – the life that is found in the supposed nothingness of the dark hours past midnight. It naughtily sneaks in seductive expressions as well.
5. Bilitis (1977)
I believe, from my admittedly limited knowledge of the rock genre, that this falls into the category of slow rock. It plays in the scene following the final revelation in this below-average David Hamilton endeavor, and my, it’s almost unbelievable how much more ground the pain and defeat of our leading lady is given just because of the music, as the rest of the elements being played out here range from average to terrible, except for, I would say, the notable cinematography. This is one of my favorite works from the master.
The title track to ‘Bilitis’ nurtures a softness, as it goes about the composer’s trademark concepts of love with innocence and a dreamy touch to the slow slither of the tune. Few artists have used the guitar to the efficiency that Lai has, at least when it comes to film music.
‘Bilitis’ proved to be one of Francis Lai’s most successful albums, as each individual scoring found a fan. I love the way this tune opens, to communicate a sort of fake, compromised hope – the kind you’d mask over with those smiles you wish no one will realize lack genuinity. I understand my descriptions on these songs are quite strange, but I assure you that it’s all Lai’s doing. Such was his mastery.
To top it all off; peace.
6. Indian Summer (1975)
One of Francis Lai’s absolute masterpieces, this one’s an atmospheric gem. To me, it speaks about the evening time by the countryside, when people come back from working their long hours, where the sun is shining brightly – a little yellow, a little red; and the activities of an area draw to a close as everything is contained to within the four walls of a home. Lai incorporates some sharp notes on the piano here, and gives the tune an almost penetrative character.
7. Vivre Pour Vivre (1967)
Funeral music with commanding power is what I hear when Theme to Catherine plays. This is one of Lai’s lesser known works that I’m a huge fan of. It’s interesting in how distinctive it is from the usual kind of music that Francis Lai creates. It still conveys a message, with varying interludes of wavy music, and it remains evocative in tone. Furthermore, there’s an element of nostalgia to be found within the structure of this piece, which only adds to its underrated magic.
8. Grenoble (1968)
This track, titled 13 Jours En France, is one of the master’s most well-known works, famous for the way it provides an essence to the backdrop that is the country of France. Under Lelouch’s directing eye, Lai has composed many works that carry with them traditional French styles in composition, acting as a city guide through mere music. Just the way it begins and ends helps cover long ground in the tour that the ambient piece demands its audience to partake in.
9. Un Amour De Pluie (1974)
Over the years, Lai began to develop his own distinctive style of music that would distinguish him from all fellow competitors. This is one of the best products of his experimentation with this personalized style. Everything about this track is essential Lai. There’s that dreamy tint to it with a hint of nostalgia, something forgot, hope, seduction, romance, and occasional ballad-inspired humming stops that elevate the richness of this track to a level of emotion that is all its own.
10. Le Corps De Mon Ennemi (1976)
To end this list, I feel this track is more worthy than any other. It’s a smart, mysterious little tune that jumps about on Lai’s command but nevertheless stays focused the minute it reaches a fourth beat. When you listen to a song of Lai’s, there are a couple of things you are made to feel. I don’t know about others, but if I speak for myself, the majority of the emotions I go through when subjected to his music are ones I simply cannot put into words. When I said at the opening of this article that I considered him to be the greatest of all time, I really meant it. No one can make music as beautiful as Francis Lai does. He hasn’t made one track that hasn’t had an effect on me. I will forever be indebted to him.
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