04 July 2008

Aubade Parisienne

Since returning to Paris from Beynes several days ago, I have been awakened early every morning, for different reasons: nightmare, allergies, construction work in the street below, the music of Bernard being sick to his stomach, and, at 3 A.M. today, the helpful alarm from my cellphone, warning me that my battery was about to run out. Around 6, I realized I wasn’t going back to sleep, and I made coffee.

Waking before dawn in Paris is a challenge at this time of year, because the rosy fingers begin to extend around 4:30, which is a useless hour in this city, and it is cold besides. At any time of year, however, the experience is never as glamorous as you think it should be, and this morning I realized that my expectations in this regard were particularly exalted and unreasonable. They were formed by an extended scene in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film Diva.

In this scene, the protagonist, Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a postman, and the object of his obsession, an American opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez), wander the streets and parks of Paris. They have been on a kind of a date, and they are in no hurry to go home. They walk for wordless hours that Beineix edits into a sequence that runs less than 3 minutes, while a melancholy piano theme (by Vladimir Cosma) plays on the soundtrack.

Jules does everything right, especially by protecting Cynthia with an umbrella (if you go walking with a diva, you will need to do the same thing), but the truth is that these two people don’t really know each other and don’t have much to say. All the characters in the film are isolated, lonely figures, a fact that’s emphasized in the scene by a sequence in the Jardins des Tuileries, where Jules and Cynthia sit some distance apart, with their backs to one another.

Heretofore, Jules has basically been a stalker, and his pirate recording of one of Cynthia’s concerts is about to throw her career into a spin. But an unlikely bond is being forged: of all the characters, Jules and Cynthia are the only ones who like the same kind of music.

He moves to sit closer to her, then closer, then places a hand on her shoulder, and she turns to look at him. She takes him back to her hotel — but she takes the bed and makes him sleep on the couch. (She is anything but a pushover.) The sequence ends with Jules, unable to sleep, lying fully dressed on a chaise longue, staring into the half-light of morning.

Over the past four years in Paris, I’ve been hanging out with a number of gorgeous opera singers, but as yet I haven’t taken this sort of stroll with any of them. Perhaps my signal error in rising so early this week is that I’ve done it alone, without a diva to share the moment.

And as I recalled this scene in the early-morning light today, I realized that I have been attempting, not very consciously or specifically, to make my life in Paris as much as possible like Diva. I’ve done all sorts of things that I might never have done if I’d never seen the movie. I’ve sped through the darkened streets on a motor scooter (although, granted, I wasn’t being chased by the police, riding through the Métro, or in fact driving the thing). I even live with a chainsmoking, middle-aged hipster — though comparing Bernard with Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) gives him too much credit.

The Zen of Buttering Bread: No knife, no bread, only the gesture.
Gorodish (Bohringer) and Jules (Andréi)
(Bernard only wishes he were this cool.)

The movie made a huge impact on me when I first saw it, in 1982; I went again and again. Surely it’s one of the reasons I’m here now — though until this morning I hadn’t realized it.