I find it fascinating that the classical piano piece “Clair de Lune” is used so much in movies. I mean, what is it about that specific piece that makes it so popular and meaningful? And how does using it in different movies give a new, nuanced meaning to either the movie scene and/or the music itself?
As to the first question, drumroll pleeeeaaaaasssseee…
I don’t know. (But it’s one of the things I’m hoping to learn more about as a graduate student in music theory and cognition!)
As to the second question, I’ve been thinking about the music’s role in two well-known movies:
It’s the piece playing at the very end of the movie (but in a more orchestral version), so spoilers up ahead! The music starts when Tess walks away from Terry, continues as she runs up to Danny (and in effect re-commits herself to him as he is being arrested), and ends with the other literal partners in crime standing in front of a fountain after their success and gradually walking off in separate directions.
But why Clair de Lune? It’s a bit weird that such a peaceful, beautiful piece would be playing at the end of an intense casino robbery, but maybe the music is working to ensure that we don’t walk away from the movie rooting for the wrong group of people. The music tells us that the fact that the robbery succeeded is a good thing, a peaceful thing, a beautiful thing. The bad guy gets snubbed, Danny gets the girl, and everyone is at peace after a job well done. But when you think about it, no one in this movie is an upstanding character. Terry’s awful, of course, but do we really believe this elaborate heist is the appropriate way to solve the problem? Clair de Lune seems to do a lot to waylay these thoughts and keep the viewer focused on viewing the 11 as the “good guys.”
The piece may also be a way to emphasize the organized, intelligent nature of the crime, since classical music seems to be associated with those adjectives, as well. (Check out Why Do the “Bad Guys” Listen to Classical Music? for more on this.) The 11 are calm, cool, and collected, just like the music, but again this seems to ultimately praise their robbery and give it a giant stamp of approval.
But now on to the second movie:
Regardless of your opinions on Twilight, isn’t it kind of strange that the same piece used at the end of Ocean’s 11 would be the same piece Edward is listening to, that Bella also loves, and that the two (awkwardly) dance to in a teen flick? What’s the connecting thread here?
In this movie, Clair de Lune seems to be acting as a kind of symbol of Edward and Bella’s soulmate status. According to the story, Edward would have been a very young human when Debussy finished composing the piece, so the piece seems to represent his past human life. But Bella (a current human) also loves the piece and as the two experience it together,Edward’s past human life is connected with Bella’s present one. The fact that they start dancing to it makes this “soulmate” message even stronger. Of course, then Bella says she can’t dance and Edward calls her a spider monkey (wut) and they caper through the woods together with his superhuman speed, but that moment with Clair de Lune is sweet and powerful, at least the way I see it.
P.S. Clair de Lune is also mentioned in the Twilight book, which brings up another potential consideration: how does the song contribute to meaning in fiction? (See Clair de Lune: Music From “All the Light We Cannot See” for another example.)
While Clair de Lune seems to give off peaceful and righteous vibes in Ocean’s Eleven, it gives off more supernatural/soulmate vibes in Twilight. Just based on context!! I think it’s awesome that music can be so versatile and powerful.
There are of course many more movies and I’m sure TV shows, commercials, etc. that use the same piece. So please let me know in the comments if you’ve seen any of them! I’d also love to hear your thoughts on music’s versatility or anything else related to this post. Do you think there’s some core meaning of the music that will always be there no matter what movie it appears in? Or do you think the meaning is super subjective based on the context?? Let me know!