Imagery inspired much of this Impressionist composer's work: footsteps in the snow, dead leaves, fireworks, clouds, moonlight, the overwhelming presence of the sea, ancient festivals, circus and Greek mythological figures, caricatures of officials, Poe's stories, children's games, gardens in the rain, shadows, golden fish, an engulfed cathedral, and much more. One orchestral and one piano set are entitled Images, and another Images oubliées (Forgotten Images).
Debussy's music has been quoted in approximately 55 films, his popular piano work Clair de lune (Moonlight) occurring in seven of them, including the elegant and gently soulful Mui du du xanh (The Scent of Green Papaya, 1993), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), and The Right Stuff (1983). The music is often heard in a "motivated" manner with a character playing the piano within the scene. Two of Debussy's ballets figure in director Herbert Ross' turbulently romantic Nijinsky (1980). The film re-creates as accurately as possible the original Ballets Russe staging and choreography. Before the presentation of Vaslav Nijinsky's first and scandalous choreography (1912) to Debussy's tone poem L'Aprés-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun, 1894), the movie includes a scene of Nijinsky and impresario Diaghilev in Greece studying ancient vases containing two-dimensional movements that later appear on-stage. From the languid, lovely recurring chromatic flute melody (similar to Salomé's aria in the Saint-Saëns opera) to the ephemeral, shimmering strings and otherworldly harp glissandi, all parts of this seminal composition create a seamless accompaniment to a warm afternoon in a mythological forest. The gradually mounting restlessness of the audience and then outraged reaction to Nijinsky's sensual and sexual movements are perfectly depicted in the film.
Also included is an excerpt from Jeux (Games [1912-1913]), commissioned directly for Nijinsky's originally "shocking" choreography about the amorous games of three young men looking for a lost tennis ball. That became changed to the flirtatious gestures among two young women and a young man dressed in tennis clothes. In this brilliant score, Debussy breaks from his earlier rich-bodied orchestrations toward fragmented pointillistic writing and continually evolving harmonies, an organic music in which all elements of the composition grow from the simplest cell. (Many of the composer's earlier works were written to satisfy the proportions of the Golden section and the Fibbonacci series). Jeux is filled with mystery, things hinted at but not fully said, sensuality, fleeting gestures, and joyfulness lightly touched upon.
Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, with its subtle melodies and fantasy libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck, has been fully realized in four television productions: in 1987 for French TV, in 1992 in a French/U.K. collaboration, and in 1999 in separate French and U.K. TV films. The mystic, symbolic, and romantic elements of this work provide rich imagery for filmmakers. There is a mystery concerning the composer's possible association with a sub-rosa society known as the Prieuré de Sion and the encoding of clues about an ancient Christian secret within this opera still to be explored by some enterprising filmmaker.
Other works by Debussy quoted in films include the delightful piano prelude in cakewalk rhythm, Général Lavine -- eccentric, in Milou en mai (1990); one of the composer's finest songs, Spleen from the Ariettes oubliées, heard in Camille Claudel (1988); the Quintet, Op. 16 in Escalier C (1985), a television production of The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (1984); the exquisite orchestral tone-poems Trois Nocturnes in Ken Russell's portrait of a genius, Savage Messiah (1972); the well-known flute solo Syrinx in Syrinx (1965); and the hypnotic piano piece En bateau in Lotusblumsten (1936).