Opera Meets Film: How ‘Cuties’ Uses Vivaldi’s ‘Nisi Dominus’ to Explore Conflicting Narrative & Formal Tensions in a Climactic SceneBy David Salazar
“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a film section or a film in its entirety and highlight the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Maïme Doucouré’s “Cuties (Mignonnes).”
A little over an hour into “Cuties,” Amy, our 11-year-old protagonist has reached her lowest point. Having gone into open revolt against her Muslim family’s values, she attacks a girl (and subsequently gets beat up) and then she steals some money from her mother. It can’t get any lower for Amy as she grapples with piecing together an identity in the face of her family’s implosion after her father’s marriage to another woman.
But the film takes a very unique turn in the scene following her theft. Suddenly, for the first and only time, the camera locks down in a wide shot on a street as we see colorful confetti falling in slow motion. Then slowly, Amy and her friends appear from behind the hill, carrying numerous shopping bags and throwing confetti and clothes into the air (it’s the very image above). The slow-motion imagery continues as we get individual closeups of each of the girls staring into the camera, almost taunting the viewer.
This entire sequence is scored by the “Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum. Ecce haereditas Domini filii, merces fructus ventris” from Vivaldi’s “Nisi Dominus” as performed by Andreas Scholl, a gentle piece that seems to run counter to the film’s narrative direction, but undeniably highlights Amy’s psychology in this moment.
The translation for the Latin text goes as follows:
“For so he giveth his beloved sleep. Lo, children and the fruit of the womb: are an heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord.”
On one hand, the music’s peaceful and dare I say, angelic, qualities, underpin the imagery beautifully. Amy feels free. She has found friends, an identity she enjoys, and a sense of direction. This is what bliss feels and looks like for her and Doucouré’s imagery bares this out.
But you can’t help but read the irony into the scene as well, especially in the context of where we just were with the story and where we are headed. The slow-motion imagery only materializes in this sequence; the rest of the film is depicted in a gritty handheld style that sticks rather close to its characters. The image of the girls running up the hill with their shopping bags in slow motion is hallucinatory by contrast.
This is furthered by the “Cum dederit,” which is the first of only two instances in the film of non-diegetic music; the other such instance comes at the climax of the film during which Amy, in the midst of the dance competition, hears an African chant and ultimately decides to abandon this way of life and return home. Moreover, the remainder of the film’s soundtrack highlights pop and hip hop tunes, which furthers the contrast with this scene from a musical perspective.
In this stylistic context, the scene comes off as what it is – unrealistic and unsustainable from a formal (the film’s style) and narrative (Amy’s story) sense.
This bliss that Amy feels in this moment can’t last. And it doesn’t.