Claire de Lune
Published in 1905 by Claude Debussy “Claire de Lune,” the third movement of the popular piano sonata Suite Bergamasque seems to represent wealth, power, and beauty. Performed on the piano, the song is very different from other pieces written by Debussy. There is an approachability to the music that has been recognized by many popular filmmakers. Part of this approachability may have to do with the simple melody and beautiful chord progression of the song. Unlike pieces like the Preludes or the String Quartet in G, which seem to be going everywhere and no where at once, “Claire de Lune” is a piece you can hum along to with predictable timing and melody. This is probably one of the main reasons the song has been picked up in pop culture and used all over the place, including completely illogical appropriations such as Uptown Girls – as discussed below.
One of the piece’s earliest appropriations in film is in George Stevens’s Giant, where the song’s reputation of signifying wealth – and, in particular, sudden or undeserved wealth - starts. The song seems to follow a character named Uncle Bawley around. Uncle Bawley – if I can remember correctly – is the old sage character who appears to sponge off the wealth of his friends and family members. He offers advise while continuously drinking burbon. The use of “Claire de Lune” in this context suddenly represents wealth and wealthy people, but it also has a hint of disrespect. Uncle Bawley’s circumstances are never completely described, and he seems to be kind of a loaf. Old money carries a sense of respect and propriety, and Uncle Bawley is merely sponging off the other characters’ reputations. A large part of this film is the discussion of old money and new money, new money not achieving great respect, and even being looked down upon. Being a contemporary classic, “Claire de Lune” also seems to fall under this fate. It is one of those pieces, like the ones we have discussed in class this semester, that fall somewhere between pop and classical. The song – and the composer – doesn’t have the years and criticism under its belt to be properly considered “classical” by scholars, but it doesn’t have the riffs and pop chart play of popular music. Because of this reputation, the song – like Unlce Bawley - is not as respected in the way that someone like Mozart or Beethoven would be respected. However, it is still beautiful and appealing to music scholars and the public alike. It has worth, but its worth is measured in a different manner.
The song is used very notably in the 2001 film Ocean’s 11. The piece first is heard diegetically near the beginning of the film as eleven con artists meet to discuss their plan to rob some casinos. They are mingling at a private party while the song plays in the background. The next time we hear “Claire de Lune” is at the end of the film, after the men have successfully robbed the casino. They listen to the song while standing in front of the Belagio fountains. Again the music appears to be diegetic, as the fountain is always accompanied by music and the sequence of water bursts goes along with the melody of the music. This appropriation seems to be very similar to the use in Giant. The song once again represents new money and richness. This time, however, the song has a hint of dishonesty in addition to the disrespect. Though we are cheering for these characters in this anti-hero heist film, we also recognize the unlawfulness of the entire procedure. The song has a hint of fraud to it, but we revel in that fraud. This is true most obviously of the second use of the song in the film, but also when it is playing at the party. The man whose large and beautiful house the characters are partying at came into his wealth through cons, and only stands to get richer in this new deal. Again “Claire de Lune” represents wealth with a hint of disrespect.
So what is going on in this horrendous misuse of celluloid, Uptown Girls? The situation is set up perfectly for a similar use of the song, following in the vein of new and undue wealth, as Molly lives her luxurious but immature life enabled by her dead rock star parents. Molly is unable to make an honest living just as the men in Ocean’s 11, and she is unable to use her wealth in a dignified manner like Uncle Bawley in Giant. However, the song is not used in conjunction with her character. Instead, it is played as Rain is sick and listening to it in her bedroom. In this case all classical music – not just “Claire de Lune” – is used to signify an unknown stuffiness. Rain is unable to just be a kid. She can’t spontaneously dance to pop music, but instead prefers the structured nature of classical music. The film uses Mozart and Tchaikovsky to attempt to get this point across. Molly, as Rain’s nanny, has never heard any of this stuff classical music before and must teach Rain how to behave like a kid. What the filmmakers fail to understand is the nature of the piece and how very popular it is already. “Claire de Lune” is largely recognized and used in pop culture, in addition to coming from a composer who has been called “impressionist” and does not represent the kind of music they are trying to classify as boring or stuff at all.
As a result, what happens in Uptown Girls is completely incomprehensible. This scene where “Claire de Lune” is used calls attention to the music without making a point. The song doesn’t represent wealth or fraud, but rather being “Grown Up,” and surely another song without such a calming and approachable melody, and one that hasn’t been used so recognizably across the pop-culture spectrum would have made more sense. But, I think considering these aspects of the soundtrack is giving the filmmakers more credit than they deserve.