The Cinematic Galaxy of M83

On December 28th 2015

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French astronomer Nicolas Louis de La Caille spent two years in South Africa just off the coast of Cape Good Hope. He made charts of the stars and measured the distance between celestial bodies in an attempt to calculate the exact circumference of the Earth. No one really understood what he was trying to do. At the time, for the layman, the darkness between stars was simply a great expanse of nothing. And then, near the end of his tour, on February 23, 1752—just before the credits rolled—La Caille discovered the brightest spiral galaxy in the sky: M83.

Not a bad name for a French synthpop band.

M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was released in 2011 as an independent studio effort. But now, it has evolved into something of a universal soundtrack. You’ve heard the “Midnight City” in “The Mindy Project,” or “Warm Bodies,” or “22 Jump Street,” and “Outro,” in the trailer for “Cloud Atlas” or “Once Upon a Time,” or “If I Stay,” or even in advertisements for Red Bull and Bose. The music is emotional and universal and magnetic to those long-lost feelings that have no shape. It evokes a rush of strong but nebulous memories, of being happy or sad or enraged. It’s synthpop, it’s universal, it’s cinematic.

And, like all good cinema, it’s manipulative.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s honest. Art is supposed to evoke an emotional response from its audience. M83 does exactly that. What’s interesting—at least for me—is that the emotions that M83 evokes aren’t specific. Their music isn’t sad and it isn’t happy, it’s this kind of emotional blank slate that allows us to project and heighten whatever emotion we’re already dealing with. It’s music that works on its own, as an album, but I think where it best succeeds is in film.

Consider the directors of the French New Wave. They were inspired by the Neorealists (especially the infamous Rossellini) and—in direct opposition to the larger film studios—New Wave directors refused to shoot anywhere but on location. Instead of using glossy, soft-filtered studio lights, they used whatever natural light was available. And instead of remixing audio after shooting, they recorded audio in tandem with film. There was no correction, no post production. And that’s why the French New Wave produced all these movies that feel so raw.

Unlike classical or modern filmmaking, the French New Wave would shoot with loose structure and open-ended storylines. Moment-by-moment emotion was valued above an overall story arch, because the relationship between the audience and the film was more duet than monologue. It’s evident in the 1960 French New Wave masterpiece A Bout de Soufflé. The filmmakers didn’t plan much before shooting. Dialogue is ad libbed and even the actors have very little idea what’s going on. When you watch A Bout de Soufflé it’s almost comical, because so much of the dialogue has very little to do with the actual plot.

But in this weird way it makes the experience of watching A Bout de Soufflé all the more engaging. Maybe it’s because real life doesn’t mimic a narrative structure. We bounce back and forth from day to day, living our own stories, creating our own lives, and it’s only when we look back that we piece together a story that’s worth telling. Every edge is inherently blurred. If you watch A Bout de Soufflé when you’re in a good mood, then it’s a comedy. if you watch it when you’re depressed, it’s a tragedy.

These films are stripped down, and in the place where most films include expert lighting and perfectly leveled audio, the French New Wave asks their audience to project onto each scene. While no one would ever call M83 “stripped down,” their music certainly asks its audience to project their own emotions.

Listen to “Outro.” It starts with this slow melodic swell, with synthesizers, with a droning lightness that is impossible to focus on completely. There’s a dark hum just after, and everything is kind of weightless. And then, minutes later, Anthony Gonzalez’s vocals pierce through with an unmistakable rawness, high-toned and grainy. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying because his vocals are mixed so low compared to the instrumentals. The edges are rough, in their own way, if not blurry.

And I think there’s a connection here, between M83’s cinema-driven music and the French New Wave. When you listen to “Too Late,” from M83’s Saturdays = Youth, you go on a very nebulous journey. It doesn’t matter whether or not you like the song--it’s perfectly designed to take you deep inside your own head. You play, frame by frame, the movie trailer of your life. The song may not be structurally complex, but the sound blends together in this syrupy spiral that floats in the galaxy between your ears.

And that’s why we see M83’s music show up on so many soundtracks (or in the case of 2013’s You and the Night, as the soundtrack). The people who cut trailers aren’t dumb. They cleverly piece together clips and songs to generate as strong of an emotional connection as they can inside a small three minute window. We listen to it and it lets us feel whatever we’re already feeling, or whatever it is that we need to feel. It’s music that is purposefully undefined.

That’s what I love most about M83. Their songs are a kind of playground for the mind. They are these vast emotional dreamscapes that we’re invited to explore. They don’t say or do anything specifically directed, and because of that, they’re able to say or do anything. They are collaborative with their audience. M83’s music is ubiquitous, ever present, constantly playing in the theater of our minds. Like the light of the brightest galaxy in the sky, the flicker of M83 hums through everything.

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