Orange mécanique version Beethoven - mea
Orange mécanique version Beethoven - mea

Seven films lifted to new heights by Beethoven's music

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Gaspar Noé's Irrréversible and Gus Van Sant's Elephant all have one thing in common: a memorable use of music by Ludwig van Beethoven.

In cinema, Beethoven is a dog, or romantic/biographical flops (some of them quite over-the-top), a handful of half-decent biopics, but also some legendary scenes lifted to new heights by a movement from a Beethoven symphony or a few notes from a piece for piano...

« Our film score composers, no matter how good, are not Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms » Stanley Kubrick

It's hard for a film director not to be tempted to mine the infinite richness and variety of classical music to illustrate or underscore his point. Stanley Kubrick faced this situation with 2001: A Space Odyssey. He didn't like the proposals put forward by Alex North, who had been hired to compose the film's soundtrack, so he turned to Strauss, Khachaturian and Ligeti. Ludwig van Beethoven will forever be associated with another of his masterpieces: A Clockwork Orange.

Beethoven's music has seldom been used for purely illustrative purposes. More often than not, it is used to highlight the intent of a scene and enhance it: the epitome of drama in The King's Speech, the fragmentary guiding principle in Une femme mariée, the stark contrast between gentleness and violence in Elephant, the irony of a culture that does not protect people from violence in A Clockwork Orange.

A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick (1971)

Beethoven's ninth symphony mirrors the personality of the main character Alex. It runs through the film and is used in several places, either in its original form - as Beethoven wrote it - or in an arrangement by the composer Wendy Carlos: March from A Clockwork Orange and Suicide Scherzo. Underscoring the irrationality of the link between violence and culture, Kubrick said to a journalist from the Daily Express: "People have written about the failure of culture in the twentieth century: the enigma of Nazis who listened to Beethoven and sent millions off to the gas chambers ».

Elephant, Gus Van Sant (2003)

Two love letters from Beethoven, the Moonlight Sonata and Für Elise, played like haunting refrains by Alex, a teen criminal in the making, inspired by the Columbine high school shooting in 1999. Where Alex from A Clockwork Orange vented his violence to exhilarating music, Alex from Elephant finds refuge in quiet compositions that nevertheless reveal the frustration, the unsaid words and the melancholy of the character, which slowly lead him to the massacre. 

Irréversible, Gaspar Noé (2002)

The choice of the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony by Gaspar Noé in Irréversible is both an echo of the omnipresent reference to Kubrick and the exact opposite in narrative terms. The sickening, jerking violence - even on the soundtrack - at the beginning of the film is answered by the Allegretto of the 7th Symphony in a final scene of peace and innocence, filmed very gracefully. 

A Married Woman, Jean-Luc Godard (1964)

At the beginning of Breathless, Jean-Paul Belmondo says "It must, it must", referring to Beethoven's written question and answer in the last movement of Quartet Op. 135, "Must it be?", "It must be!".  Jean-Luc Godard's predilection for Beethoven is a long and productive love story. In A Married Woman (1964), "a series of fragments of a film shot in 1964", the film-maker uses - precisely - fragments of Beethoven quartets, like isolated fragments that come from nowhere and then just disappear again. 

The Barber, Joel et Ethan Coen (2001)

Beethoven's works, and more particularly his sonatas, form the common thread running through the Coen brothers' film The Barber. In their film, the directors use four sonatas (Op. 13 - "Pathétique", Op. 27 No. 2 "Moonlight Sonata", Op. 57 \- the "Appassionata" - and Op. 79) and the Piano Trio No. 7 Op. 97. As in Elephant, it is the melancholy of the Beethoven sonatas that the Coen brothers bring out in The Barber, the only sound universe of the main character, Ed Crane, a barber consumed by melancholy.

Soylent Green, Richard Fleischer (1973)

This is one of the most memorable scenes in this science fiction film directed by Richard Fleischer in 1973. In a world where the ecosystem has been destroyed, nature is no more than a distant memory and food has been replaced by Soylent Green, Thorn (Charlton Heston) witnesses Sol's euthanasia in a purpose-built centre. Images of the lost world projected on the screen are accompanied by the first movement of the Pastoral, presented here as Beethoven himself\ imagined it: an "awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside".

The King's Speech, Tom Hooper (2010)

Though not exactly a controversy, Tom Hooper's use of Beethoven's 7th Symphony as the background to Great Britain's declaration of war in 1939 sparked a deluge of comments, given that Beethoven is a German composer held in great esteem by the Nazis. And yet this movement acts like a second voice to King George VI's speech, perfectly underlining its inherent drama.