The present clip is from Jean-Jacques Beneix’s film Diva, released in 1981. Diva is set in Paris and follows the story of a young postman named Jules and his obsession with an African-American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins. In this scene, Jules reveals his obsession to Alba, a Vietnamese nymphet who becomes one of his close friends and a significant supporting character. Alba is the first person that Jules allows to listen to his recording of Cynthia Hawkins’ singing. Not only does he invite the girl into his residence, which is kept secret from other characters, but he allows her to listen to the recording with him. In this essay, I will argue that this scene creates a parallel between the act of listening to music and a sexual encounter.
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The first sequence of shots that is relevant to my argument is at the beginning of the clip. The scene begins with Jules and Alba sitting on a moped as the elevator takes the characters to Jules’ loft. Alba is singing, high-pitched, before she breaks to ask Jules whether she is a coloratura or a lyric. As Jules begins to open the door into the loft, he states that she is dramatic, to which Alba acts disappointed: “You said lyric!”. As the door into the loft opens, the camera moves to show the main setting of Jules’ residence: multiple crashed cars are arranged in a semi-circle, with a broken car part in the middle.
Alba takes a moment to criticize the gloomy surroundings before she walks to one of the cars, set in the back. The camera follows her movement, and so does Jules, who appreciates Alba’s choice of car: “The lady has a taste.” He is still holding his red moped helmet in his hands as he approaches Alba to explain that the car she chose is a Rolls-Royce. They talk about the incident briefly when Alba mentions meeting a man who drove the same car: “I didn’t hesitate, I climbed right in.”
Another sequence of shots that I want to discuss occurs towards the end of the clip when Jules and Alba prepare to listen to the recording. The sequence begins when Alba sits Jules on the sofa next to her and starts to take off his watch. Jules begins to protest but does not stop the girl as she removes the watch and gives him a new, shiny Rolex as a replacement. Noticing the brand name, Jules cries out “It’s Rolex” just before the camera begins to close in. Jules’ voice is quieter as he asks if the girl knows the cost of the watch, and Alba licks her lips without giving any clear response.
The camera moves closer continuously throughout the short sequence, as the characters pause to look into each other’s eyes before Alba puts a finger under Jules’ chin and closes her face in to kiss him on the lip. She pulls back quickly and hurries him to listen to the recording as the camera switches abruptly to show a black-and-white portrait of Cynthia Hawkins by the wall. In the next shot, the characters are still on the couch, but Jules has two sets of headphones: one placed on his neck, and one in his hand to give to Alba. Behind him is a small tall table with alcohol beverages and a glass. Jules sits on the sofa facing Alba as he tells her the story behind the song they are about to listen.
Alba is tense as she listens to his explanation, but as soon as Jules begins to quote the lyrics, she reclines, resting her head on the back of the sofa. Jules finishes talking, and the characters quickly put their sets of headphones on, and the music starts playing. They stay in the same position until the end of the scene, with Jules sitting with his right side to the camera, facing Alba, while she rests her body against the sofa, looking up to the ceiling. As the song begins, the camera starts to rotate slowly around the characters, closing in to emphasize the intensity with which Jules stares at Alba’s face to read her impression of the song. The camera continues to turn as it moves back.
We can no longer see the characters’ faces. Instead, the focus is on the table with liquor bottles and two chairs surrounding it. In the next shot, the camera returns to the characters. Alba lies back with her eyes closed and an ecstatic expression on her face. She reaches her hand up to touch Jules’ wrist and bites her lip as if she was experiencing physical pleasure from listening to music, while Jules keeps his gaze fixed on her face. The camera moves upwards and out to take in the rest of the room; besides the table with liquor and the chairs surrounding it, there is a car painting on the back wall, clothes scattered, and an unmade bed in the background of the shot, whereas the rest of the objects are indistinguishable.
Throughout the scene, there are only two characters that are present: Jules and Alba. The presence of only two characters, male and female, suggests a certain degree of intimacy. Furthermore, some of the topics discussed by the characters are suggestive. For instance, when Alba describes a stranger in a white Rolls-Royce picking her up, this makes the viewers question the nature of her relationship with Serge Gorodish. Although Alba appears to be a teenager, her sexuality is clearly established in the scene where she first meets Jules, as she demonstrates a portfolio folder, which is full of her erotic photographs. This image is contrasted with the overall innocence in Alba’s acts: she jumps on a naked woman drawing on the floor in Jules’ apartment, asks for a bent straw to drink coke, and more. The image created as a result is one of a teenage nymphet, similar to Lolita, which, although controversial, draws the viewers’ attention to the sexual subtext of the scene.
The camera work throughout the scene is focused on the characters and their interaction. When the characters are preparing to listen to the recording on the sofa, the close-up shots allow focusing on the intense eye contact and facial expressions of the characters. Alba watches Jules intently before she kisses him on the lips; a similar expression can be seen on Jules’ face as he watches Alba listen to the music. The emotions and reactions of both characters are not appropriate for the circumstances. These are not just two friends listening to their favorite music: the expressions, including Jules’ intense gaze, Alba closing her eyes and throwing her head back, biting of the lips, etc., create a sexually intense image rather than a friendly and innocent one.
The act of listening to music is deeply intimate: Jules does not allow Alba to listen to music via speakers, he insists on them both wearing headphones so that only they could hear the music. This enhances the feeling of intimacy between the characters. The music itself acts as the trigger to the characters’ pleasure, which is obvious from Alba’s expressions, while at the same time promoting emotional bond and connection between them – similarly to a sexual act. Therefore, the sequence establishes a clear parallel between music and sex, which serves a purpose of setting up the grounds and limits of Jules’ obsession with Cynthia, as well as developing his relationship with Alba.
Overall, I believe that this scene is used unravel the role of music in the characters’ lives as well as to establish a particular degree of closeness between them. The dialogue between the characters, as well as their representation, allows seeing beyond their obvious actions into the subtext of the scene, where the act of listening to music is paralleled in pleasure and intensity to a sexual act. In this sequence, we learn that Jules’ obsession is not just with Cynthia, but with her music and voice, which allows for a clearer interpretation of the rest of the film. This effect is achieved by the work of the director, actors, and rest of the crew through a complicated scheme of character interaction, camera work, and sound.