Rachel Portman’s Bittersweet Chocolat


published in SF Observer By Bob Hershon

After taking home an Oscar in 1996, for “Emma”, Rachel Portman, the only female composer to win an Academy Award for best film score, was hoping her score for “Chocolat” would provide her with a matching gold statuette in 2001. Though the envelope held another’s name, it still doesn’t diminish her shining achievement in film composition. Once again teaming with director Lasse Hallestrom (Cider House Rules), Portman’s evocative soundtrack for “Chocolat” helped bring to life the story of a sorceress who transforms a town with her special brand of “chocolate” and is in turn transformed by the loss of her powers and the love that she finds there. Portman purposely avoided making her score for “Chocolat” too sweet in order to give this adult fairy tale the emotional impact the film needed, as she pointed out. “It’s important for the film to work as something that is not entirely nice, but which had deeper levels resonating behind it, which is what I wanted to mirror with the music. There is a restless exhaustive quality to the central character (Vianne played by Juliette Binoche), who is clearly worried that the “wind” will call her and uproot her life and that of her child. I contrasted that with a lighter quicker up-tempo theme that created a balance.” Portman’s sonic magic is expressed not only in her melodies but also in her unique and artful use of orchestration. Some of this centuries finest orchestrators Aaron Copland, Conrad Salinger (Singin In The Rain, An American In Paris) and Alfred Newman, have worked in film. Unlike most composers who use strings to carry the bulk of their ideas, Rachel Portman paints her picture with woodwinds, like the clarinet, oboe and English horn. “I think woodwinds have a unique ability to tell a story like the oboe in Peter and The Wolf. I think the palate (the instrumental combinations) are almost as important as the ideas (melodies) themselves,” Portman explained. “I know which instrument should stand for which character or which emotion. And it’s nice to hear woodwinds when they are not buried in the mix of a huge orchestra. This tonal coloring is something I sweat over endlessly and spend as much time and trouble on it as I can. I wish the production schedules (she had only three weeks to score “Chocolat”) weren’t so rushed in film, it’s a nightmare to finish quality work on time.” While studying at Oxford Rachel was told by her advisor, that her musical inclinations were hopelessly ill suited for the world of classical composition. “I just wasn’t suited to writing music that was not connected to some human emotional idea or story. I owe my tutor everything because I went directly from there to film scoring (“Privilege” one of the most successful student films ever).” She sees every new film as a chance to explore a different existence. Though she has worked with a variety of directors, most recently Robert Redford (“The Legend of Bagger Vance”), she credits Jonathan Demme, who she is currently at work with on “The Truth About Charlie”(remake of the thriller “Charade”), with providing her most interesting collaboration. “Before I started working on “Beloved” Jonathan prohibited me from using any standard orchestral instruments or arrangements, Rachel said” “I spent months researching African instruments like the kora from Mali. I just heard the score for the first time in three years and I realized it sounds nothing like any of my other scores. And that’s great. I am not in this line of work to hear my music as a signature sound, up loud and taking center stage. I am in it to be stretched and to have the chance a few times every year to become part of and experience a new world of feelings and circumstances.”