The Moderns

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Music by Mark Isham
Songs Performed by Charlélie Couture

1988: Virgin 2-90922

  1. Les modernes
  2. Café Selavy
  3. Paris la nuit / Selavy
  4. Really the Blues
  5. Madame Valentin
  6. Dada je suis
  7. Parlez-moi d’amour [Retro]
  8. La valse moderne
  9. Les peintres
  10. Death of Irving Fagelman
  11. Je ne veux pas de tes chocolats
  12. Parlez-moi d’amour [Moderne]

This is a true gem in my music collection, all the more cherished because it’s so little-known by others. WHY it’s so little known, I cannot imagine: it’s beautiful music done deftly for a certain mood and setting. Granted, the mood-and-setting combination is not a historically accurate one, but then it’s not supposed to be: the film The Moderns presented a certain idealized mishmash of Paris impressions that nonchalantly jumbled three or four decades of American/British expatriate legend while stating that the film was set in 1926, resulting in something that vaguely purports to show anything from the 1890s to the 1930s. And in case we missed director Alan Rudolph’s somewhat snide suggestion that Art History too repeats itself, he gives us a jarring in-your-face anachronism in the form of early-1980s edgy denizens populating the bar (as boredly and coldly impassive as their preceding counterparts had been) at the end of one last slow pan across the Café Selavy past the same old stories and tired dramas.

I really can’t recommend the film—that I long didn’t have a copy of it in my own video library (until 2013) is proof of that—because its representation of Paris is so ridiculously cartoony that after I’d actually been to Paris I found I couldn’t even watch the film through again. Plus which its portrayal of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas really put me off with its pettiness, and if I’d been a Hemingway fan I’d have railed against its wholesale lampooning of Hemingway, although it must be noted that that was half of the joke of the film’s deliberate style. Carradine was fine, and Geneviève Bujold was lovely in her understatement; Wallace Shawn was gratuitous, but then that suited his character, “Oiseau” (“Don’t call me ‘Wazzy!’”).

But it does have this delicious soundtrack. And if ever there was a recording for which the word “elliptical” was almost literally appropriate, it’s Isham’s gorgeous piano/violin duet “Madame Valentin”…the elegantly inequal arpeggios being so lovely that I was forced to transcribe them for my own piano-playing enjoyment upon finding that Isham has never published these pieces.

Track 7 isn’t credited as such, but it’s Lucienne Boyer’s classic rendition of “Parlez-moi d’amour,” and track 4, “Really the Blues,” is by Sidney Bechet. How graceless to not acknowledge sources—even if art forgery is the film’s main theme! Then again, the CD cover has those oddly exclusive statements that this is “Music by Mark Isham” and “Songs Performed by Charlélie Couture” when in fact each of them wrote various of these songs (plus there are two by uncredited others) and Isham plays on the album as part of the “Orchestre Moderne.” Really, the liner notes for this one are an unhelpful mess.

I should add for those who, like me 20 years ago, wondered about the album cover’s imagery: it’s a smooth steal from the painting “Montparnasse Blues,” by Kees van Dongen. I’ve only seen a print of that painting, and only once, but it was enough to confirm the connection; in keeping with the film’s storyline of artistic forgery, the painting and the soundtrack are both simultaneously tributes and imitations (“evocations” if you prefer to imply less theft and more intentional stylization). Interestingly, the cover painting is credited to Keith Carradine, who plays the forging painter in the film.