Que la bête meure: opening music

Analysis materials and notes

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Essential videos

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phi 1. Que la bête meure: Opening Sequences (00:00-06:25; unedited with time code) — go to timings and comments
phi | vimeo 2. Que la bête, Brahms and the Car (00:00-02:51; with synchronised score, car sound notes, time code)— go to timings and comments

Other materials
Brahms: No 1 of Vier ernste Gesänge , op. 121 #1 (1896)
view complete Breitkopf score by courtesy of Petrucci
— sung by Kathleen Ferrier [Decca ACL 106] — 1950 audio recording on YouTube

Que la bête meure. Les Films La Boëtie/Rizzoli Film (1969) on Pathfinder DVD (2003) 107 mins.
Title music: Johannes Brahms. Underscore: Pierre Jansen; Director: Claude Chabrol.

Basic plot

From the 1938 novel This Man Must Die by Cecil Day-Lewis under pseudonym Nicholas Blake. (Very similar to Stig Dagerman’s short story Att döda ett barn = To Kill a Child (1948)).

Nine-year-old Michel, on his way home from the beach, is run down and killed by a driver who's showing off to his actress girlfriend as he drives his big black car recklessly along country lanes and through a village. Michel’s father, Charles, vows to avenge his son's death by hunting down the culprit and killing him. Unsurprisingly, the driver, Paul, turns out to be a real salaud; but there are complications...

The first six minutes of the film (in Video 1) establish the basic premise of the film’s narrative. It does so in two sections: [1] the abruptly cross-cut hit-and-run sequences (0:00-2:51: see Video 2 for details) ; [2] vowing revenge (Video 1, 4:06 ff.).

Analysis notes


Neither this file nor the two videos accompanying it constitute an analysis. They are merely materials that can help in the creation of an analysis of the first few minutes in Claude Chabrol’s 1969 film Que la bête meure. If you’re interested in understanding how this audiovisual production works (or doesn’t work), the observations given below should point you in a constructive direction.

Recommended procedure

  1. Hear/view Video 1 straight through two or three times, checking the basic structure of the sequences given under ‘General timings´, below.
  2. Hear/view Video 2 straight through at least once.
  3. Read the short sections ‘Music/sound (general) and ‘Lyrics’ just under the heading ‘Video 2’ in this document.
  4. Hear/view Video 2 section by section as presented under Video 2: Timings and specific comments’ and noting any other points of interest you find for each section. Check through each section several times.
  5. Create your own analysis of the opening sequences in Que la bête meure, using IOCM techniques if possible.

Questions of possible interest

  1. Do the abruptly cut Brahms excerpts actually work or do you think they’re a bit pretentious?
  2. Would it have been better to use a more modern underscore?
  3. Is it possible to distinguish between music and ‘non-musical’ sound in this piece of film?

Vimeo logo Video 1 — 0:00:00-0:06:25

General timings

‘natural’ sounds & the boy
Brahms and the car

fade in to boy on beach near water's edge; then zoom out fade in water sounds then seagulls


harbour; small boats CU
dark car partially visible behind boats
water lapping in harbour
Brahms (1) audible then car
boy walks along water's edge walking through water, small waves
car on harbour wall, pan left, up hill;
higher gear, more speed
Brahms (2): f-c#, ½ cadence;
car in D
boy CU, checks watch, leaves beach water, gulls, walking
car speeding, gear change Brahms (3), car from F bass to A
church tower through trees
pan L over village sqare;
boy approaches on side road
church clock chimes 12 on D
collision fr inside car
woman screams; man: «ta gueule!»
car leaves hit-and-run

Brahms (4), chaotic allegro, dim;
fast car sound; brief wind sound

inhabitants gather round body;
credits; father arrives, carries dead child
footsteps, etc.
father yells
credits cont'd, church tower
Chabrol credit
birds twitter, wind;
clock 1 chime: 12:30
notebook in car; «tuer un homme» dirge/funeral music; death drum;
felt pen v loud
notebook shut; guy in close profile;
cab driver «vous étiez malade?»
music more 'painful', distressed
'pas comme vous l'entendez' b2 and #4: more sinister
memories return at petrol station;
road sign, «les salauds»
solo cello 'longing' motifs
after 'vous savez, l'administration!';
arrival at destination
despair b6-5 and cadence

Vimeo logo Video 2: Brahms, the Boy and the Car (0:00-2:51)

Music/sound (general)

The music for the first 3 minutes in Que la bête meure consists of two elements: [1] abruptly jump-cut excerpts from the first of Brahms's ‘Four Serious Songs’ (Vier ernste Gesänge, published in 1896: see ‘Lyrics’, complete score and Kathleen Ferrier recording); [2] car engine sounds in the same key as the Brahms song (D minor) plus the church clock chimes, also in D. The Brahms sequences coincide visually with the ‘death car’ (black, bulbous, hearse-like), whereas sounds from the natural world (water, birds, breeze, etc.) are connected to the visual presence of the boy about to be killed.


The lyrics of the Brahms song are from Luther's version of Chapter 3 in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, verses 19-20 (Eng. transl. P Tagg).
Lines of music heard in the opening sequences of Que la bête meure are in this font (below).

Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh:
Wie dies stirbt so stirbt er auch

Und haben allerlei Odem;
Und der Mensch hat nichts mer denn das Vieh:
Denn es ist alles Eitel.
Es fährt alles an einen Ort;
Es ist alles von Staub gemacht,
Und wird wieder zu Staub

The same fate awaits humans as awaits cattle:
As one dies so dies the other

And both have breath;
And humans have nothing more than do cattle
For it is all vanity.
Everything travels to one place;
It's all made of dust
And turns back into dust.

Video 2: Timings and specific comments

------- BOY -------- [0:00-0:22]

Video. [0:00] Slow focus-in to long shot [0:07] of boy gathering tiny sea creatures on a sandy beach in Brittany at low tide; zoom-out to panoramic view of beach [0:20]; mini waves sweeping R-L along beach as they break.
Audio. [0:00] Soft sea swell; seagulls squeal [0:11]; more voluminous sea swell, still soft; gulls continue [0:13].

------- CAR -------- [0:23-0:44]

Video [0:23] Medium shot of boats in small harbour. [0:25] Movement of a dark car behind boat masts is panned R-L and becomes visible [0:28] travelling on harbour wall.
Audio [0:23] Soft close-up sound of lapping water in harbour. [0:25] Car's low-droning motor becomes audible and morphs into [0:27] the piano sound in bars 2-5 of the Katherine Ferrier rendering of Brahms' Ernste Gesänge #1 —"Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh" (see translation and
example 1). Low-register piano D minor, thick texture, droned a and d, v. slow, funereal, 4×♭3-2 or 2-♭3; tragic ♭6-5 figure at "Vieh" (see Everyday Tonality, p. 106, ff). Mostly (except for upbeat a=220 Hz) restricted melodic range (a mere fourth) in medium-low register.

Example 1. Brahms: Ernste Gesänge 1, bars 2-5 [0:27-0:44]

------- BOY -------- [044-0:50]

Video [0:44]. Boy pushes net L-R along water's edge
Audio [0:44]. Small waves lapping at boy's feet.

------- CAR -------- [0:50-1:24]

Video [0:50] Car on harbour wall R-L. [0:55] Turns left, approaching camera. [1:01] Pan L: car up hill from camera. [1:06] Changing gear in car. [1:11] POV fr car roof, speeding, field of vision forwards c 25 metres (< stopping distance at speed shown).

Audio [0:50] Brahms as before plus [0:58] car rough sound on d at ‘auch’; [1:00] high-pitched diminished fourth figure f♮↘c♯ (bar 8, anguished saltus duriusculus) as the car turns right to go up the hill. [1:07] car engine on f bass (bar 9) for gear change; [1:15] half-cadence reached at start of bar 11 where car engine’s d dominates soundtrack.

Example 2. Brahms: Ernste Gesänge 1, bars 6-12 [0:50-1:24]

------- BOY -------- [1:24-1:45]

Video [1:24] Boy looks at watch and [1:31] leaves beach, looks back towards sea.
Audio [1:24] same sounds as at 0:44. [1:37] Light footsteps, [1:42] wind sound.

------- CAR THEN BOY -------- [1:46-2:35]

Video [1:46] POV car roof speeding forwards max 25 m visibility. [1:53] Gear change in car. [1:55] Driver puts arm round girlfriend. [2:03] Church tower through early spring trees. [2:10] Village square, pan L. [2:16] Boy approaching square on side road.
Audio [1:46] Car engine indefinite pitch. [1:48] Melodic saltus duriusculus 1
f♮↘c♯ (dim. 4th at es ist, bar 23) and [1:50] 2 d♮↘g♯ in high alto register (dim. 5th at alles, bar 24 —both ‘distress’ intervals (see ‘Antidepressants and musical anguish management’)). [1:53] Gear change to car engine pitch on a (110 Hz, V in D minor, bar 25). [2:03] Brahms stops, V-I cadence is completed with audio jump cut to twelve chimes of church clock on d. [2:20] Boy's footsteps mixed into chimes, then also birdsong audible. [2:31] Last bell chime.

Example 3. Brahms: Ernste Gesänge 1, bars 23-25 plus car engine and church clock [1:46-2:35]

------- CAR: BOY KILLED -------- [2:36-2:50]

Video [2:36] POV behind driver looking forwards; too fast into village square, cornering out of control. [2:39;06] Boy knocked down [2:40;01] Camera in church tower: boy on tarmac, car speeds on [2:40;16] Girlfriend screams, driver grunts ‘ta gueule’. [2:43;11] In-car POV looking back at village square as car speeds away. [2:44;16] Long shot, deserted village square, boy on tarmac, car disappears into distance (end 2:50;02).

Audio [2:36] chaos and disorder: things are out of control. Hectic tempo and very quick surface rate over sound of accelerating car engine. Melody and piano RH consists of two diminished arpeggios — E-9 (bars 36-39) and A-9 (2:40; bars 40-42); —II and V going to I on D (for ‘death’)? Sforzando, high melodic register outburst falling. Staub (= dust) on high f in bar 38 is at 2:37 and coincides with seeing the boy just before killing him, and the girlfriend’s scream with wieder zu Staub (= back to dust) at 2:40. [2:43] Car engine sound fades into distant tyre screech. [2:48] Silence.

Example 4. Brahms: Ernste Gesänge 1, bars 36-42 [2:36-2:44]



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