Clair de Lune in Two Popular Movies (What’s Up With That?)

movie popcorn

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:

Ocean’s Eleven

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:

Twilight

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!

20 thoughts on “Clair de Lune in Two Popular Movies (What’s Up With That?)

  1. Music manipulates us…it touches something in us and can play with our emotions. We listen to music that goes along with our mood and we are swept away but certain notes…or terrified and like Pavlov’s dog, we only need to hear a few notes from the opening of JAWS and we know what’s coming next. We are easily led, willingly, most of the the time. Clair is beautiful and moves back and forth like a wave, taking us first one way then the other…the opening notes catch us and we stay with it but it’s just like water to me…and the tide…it’s beautiful and it has its way with us. 🙂

    I never saw Oceans 11 but I LOVE Vegas and go all the time so that was fun to watch and the music definitely fit the scene, especially when he walked into the elevator.

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  2. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Twilight clip haha, but I was thinking the whole time about the fact that the song was mentioned in the book, which you then mentioned. I think that’s the only reason it was in the movie. I rolled my eyes when I got to that bit in the book on my recent read through. Mainly because I see Clair de Lune as a famous/popular piece. It’s in loads of movies and it mentioned all the time. It’s almost like Fur Elise for me in how common it is. I recently read another YA book that mentioned classical music, and it was actually something I wasn’t familiar with. I really appreciated it and checked it out later (can’t remember what it was now).
    I had been thinking maybe the song was used in the original Oceans 11 somewhere and the use was a throwback, but I couldn’t find any evidence of that. I’d have to watch it again to know for sure. I like your description though, of needing a happier song to remind us who the good guys were 😀

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    • Good point! Classical music can definitely be overused. (I’m with you on Fur Elise…) Thankfully Clair de Lune still sucks me in! It’s like every time it starts I just get chills or something, but I can also definitely see its Fur Elise status. Anyways, I wonder why Stephanie Meyer used that specific piece in the book? Maybe it was just because it’s popular and people would recognize it, but I wonder if there was a deeper meaning, too. Who knows? And that’s cool about the YA book! I had a similar experience a while ago but I also forgot what the music was haha. There’s just something about connecting it to a character I already love though that just makes it that much cooler. 🙂

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  3. We covered this song in an experimental group I played in Claire Obscure and the Nocturnes and made a video using Prelinger Archives material. There is something very haunting and contagious about the tune. It works really well (well, for me it does) adding the lyrics to Walking on the Moon by The Police 🙂

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  4. Have you seen the Clair de Lune scene in Fantasia? I think that sums up why filmmakers like it so much: its simple beauty. It’s fine just on piano or it can be added to with different instruments to create a whole different feel without diminishing it. The Fantasia version uses strings and Ocean’s Eleven expanded into the whole orchestra but the piano version is just as lovely. As you said, it’s very versatile and I think that’s down to its understated nature.

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  5. Ahh I love this. As a classical musician myself, I feel that often ‘Clair de Lune’ is often used in films simply because it is a well-known piece! Debussy was well known for his inventive use of parallel 7ths and 9ths, which was sort of revolutionary at the time. This is how he creates those gorgeous sounding chord progressions that make us swoon! I feel that it is often used in films as a relaxing piece of classical music because it is well known to the majority of the audience watching. It is much like the common usage of Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ in scenes of upper class formal dinners, or Johann Strauss’ ‘The Blue Danube’ in waltz scenes.

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    • I definitely agree. If people know it, it’s easier to use! So weird though how a few classical pieces are so commercialized (or at least the first few measures)! But I guess the same thing happens to older pop music!

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  6. I wish today’s younger generation had a wider knowledge of classical music – hence the basis of my blog, to show people it’s how I live a normal life – but when you listen to even some of the better known pieces that aren’t as often used in film music, you can sort of see why they stick to pieces like Clair de Lune/The Blue Danube etc. One piece I think should be used so much more in film music is Chopin’s Prelude in E minor – it’s used in “The Notebook” as the piano piece Ally plays, and the piano playing sort of becomes a motif in the film. It’s so gorgeous I don’t know why it’s not used more often!!

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  7. Pingback: Music and Meaning in Moonrise Kingdom | If Mermaids Wore Suspenders

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