This year's biggest films put classical music to good use

If Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is any indication, classical music is still playing well on the big screen. We look at some other movies with notably classical soundtracks.

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If you want to listen to great classical music, go to the cinema. That, at least, seems to be the message from this year's Cannes Film Festival. One trend that emerged clearly from this year's event was for films to build their soundtracks around the works of great composers. The winner of the Palme d'Or for best film, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, came absolutely dripping with classical music. Featuring Bach, Mahler, Berlioz and Couperin among others, it even includes a scene where a frustrated musician played by Brad Pitt discusses Brahms with his son. Meanwhile, von Trier's Melancholia, which scored a best actress gong for Kirsten Dunst, relied heavily upon Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde.

The two directors are continuing a grand tradition of films that use classical music as more than just a complementary accompaniment to their images. In the right hands, a classical score can function as an active player in the film, adding otherwise absent layers of meaning or propelling the plot forward. From the highbrow to the populist, films are often a brilliant place to witness the power and potential for transformation that classical music offers.

Here are some films whose central use of the classical repertoire is particularly worth looking out for.

Diva (1981)

A bootlegged opera aria provides the unlikely pivot for this stylish thriller from the French director Jean Jacques Beneix. The American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (played by Wilhemenia Fernandez) has a passionate cult following but has always refused to have her voice recorded. When an obsessive fan manages to secretly record a near-perfect take of one of her concerts, she is forced to confront the waning power of her voice.

What follows is a darkly stylish romp involving Taiwanese gangsters, police corruption and lots of pretty shots of Paris in the early morning. What sticks in the mind most, however, is the stolen recording of the aria itself, a rendering of Catalani's Ebben? Ne andrò lontana from the opera La Wally that, with its sad grace, sends shivers down the spine.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

As US helicopters attack a Vietnamese beach in Francis Ford Coppola's anti-war masterpiece, they blast out Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries from their speakers. The soundtrack couldn't have been better chosen, encouraging the viewer to see the American forces' attack as an exercise in vainglory.

Not only is the music powerful, but including one-time Nazi favourite Wagner in the film also encourages viewers to think about what western culture might look like from the outside.

With a brilliant match of sound and image, the film is a rare example of music actually making a film's message more sophisticated.

The Ladykillers (1955)

Featuring five British gangsters who disguise themselves as a string quintet, this black comedy is a brilliant example of how to use music for comic effect.

Holed up as lodgers in an elderly landlady's house after a station robbery, the gang pretend they are practising by playing a record of Boccherini's String Quintet in E in their room. The sound of the music becomes a punctuation mark throughout the film, its bright, almost prim sound in stark contrast to the robber's descent into paranoia and murder when they think their landlady will inform on them.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Making Beethoven's Ninth Symphony such a key component of this brutal film - a triumph by the master soundtrack manipulator Stanley Kubrick - only serves to make it even more troubling.

When police catch the perversely cultured delinquent Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) after a violent rampage, the authorities of a strange futuristic version of Britain attempt to quash his destructive impulses using something called "the Ludovico Technique". This painful form of aversion therapy partly involves playing him Beethoven, whose face appears on screens and busts as a thread throughout the film. Purged of his impulses through fear and compulsion, the experience of listening to Beethoven becomes so painful that DeLarge later jumps out of a window to escape it.

A critique of attempts to control people by force rather than persuasion, Clockwork Orange's repeated use of Beethoven also questions the assumption that great music automatically grants its lovers a form of redemption.

Pretty Woman (1990)

Verdi may have to compete with loud blasts of Roxette and Roy Orbison, but a central moment of the plot hinges on the great opera composer's music. It's when Julia Roberts first sees Verdi's La Traviata live on stage that her transformation from street-smart grafter to refined trophy wife appears complete.

The scene makes sense: watching the story of a so-called fallen woman's self sacrifice, Roberts's character learns that great art isn't just beautiful, it also concerns itself with the fortunes of imperfect people like herself.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't match up to the sublime quality of the music it quotes. Once the music fades, its cynical attempts to make both Roberts's character's grim life and the ill-gotten cash that lifts her out of it look as pretty as the title leave a sour aftertaste.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

It could have been so tempting for Kubrick to opt for an entirely contemporary soundtrack for this eerie, futurist epic. Choosing orchestral music by various Strausses instead, the director gave us a brilliant, slightly unnerving clash between old-fashioned sounds and hi-tech images.

The clean perfection of the space station is brilliantly brought out by the cheerful poise of Johann Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz. Elsewhere, it was the film's use of the pummelling opening bars of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarasthustra that planted the piece in the popular imagination as the ultimate in awe-inspiring musical bombast. Add to this, the dissonant music of Hungarian modernist György Ligeti, and you have one of the most unforgettable soundtracks of all time - one where, as critic Roger Ebert pointed out, the striking images actually enhance the music rather than feeding off their grandeur.

Brief Encounter (1945)

At first glance, you might not expect a film about respectability and polite inhibition to be successfully accompanied by anything as florid and extravagant as the music of Rachmaninov. Nonetheless, the use of the Russian neo-romantic's Second Piano Concerto is one of the great strengths of Brief Encounter, David Lean's touching 1940s story of married middle-aged people who consider having an affair, but decide against it.

In a world where all the characters' lives run to a humdrum, fixed daily programme, the pounding piano music provides a poignant reminder of the emotions that the film's characters have no safe place to put. And while the restraint of the film's characters show that Noel Coward's script comes from another era, their simple, even naïve pleasure in being shaken out of their semi-satisfied sleep still seems fresh today.