Jules (Frederic Andrei) is a moped postman in Paris, who is also an opera lover & a huge fan of famous African-American diva Cynthia Hawkins (real-life opera singer Wilhelmenia Fernandez). She refuses to do any recordings, believing her art to be something that can only be experienced live, & each time heard once only. Jules makes a secret high-quality recording of her performance one night, & he takes her dress after the performance. The next day, he is at the station when a woman secretly drops a cassette into his moped bag whilst apparently being arrested by the police. But as Jules speeds off, she tries to escape & they kill her. It seems she’s trying to blow the whistle on a big drug/prostitution ring, & the tape contains all the information needed to bring down a man with a respectable façade. Soon, Jules finds himself being menaced by a pair of hitmen (one of whom is future Jeunet regular Domique Pinon) who are desperate not to let that tape get into the open, a pair of police officers who are trying to bring the criminals to justice, a pair of record executives who will stop at nothing to get his pirate opera recording, and constant newspaper reports demanding to know who stole the Diva’s dress. Fitting into all this somehow is the young Vietnamese shoplifter Alba (Thuy An Luu) & her companion Gorodish (Richard Bohringer).
A sizeable hit when it was first released in the early 80s, Diva marks the directorial debut of Jean-Jacques Beineix (Betty Blue), & somewhat revitalised the French film industry abroad, whilst being a key work in the so-called “Cinema du Look” movement, of which Beineix & Luc Besson are the most celebrated practitioners. And it is indeed that look that really drives Diva. This is a simply gorgeous film to watch, with its super-stylish cinematography by Philippe Rousselot making excellent use of the colours in front of the constantly moving camera. Time & again we are presented with extrovert camera moves, taut edits, inventive angles, & odd reflections – in fact, this practically rates a 5 purely on an eye candy level. He photography is matched by the fantastically brilliant set & costume designs by Hilton McConnico. Whilst there are many influences to be felt in Diva - everything from Godard to Argento is channelled through Beineix’s new wave/pop art sensibilities - watching the film 20 years later it’s clear that its own influence is much greater, including pretty much everything from advertising & music videos to big Hollywood blockbusters. And whilst you can see all these reference points, & it’s very clearly a product of its time, it still feels incredibly fresh, vibrant, stylish & exciting today.
Based upon the novel by Daniel Odier, the plotting is (as the above synopsis suggests) incredibly intricate & inventive, with a large number of concurrent plot strands ingeniously woven together with such confidence as to never be confusing. If there’s a flaw, it’s perhaps that there are too many & some plot strands are inevitably sidelined for lengthy sections of the film, only to be reintroduced as they are required. Pleasingly, Beineix is confident enough to be able to coherently tell his complex & involved narrative – filled with faintly surreal touches & all manner of doublings, red herrings, & misunderstandings – largely visually, & there are some good length stretches with little dialogue. One of the most entertaining sequences is the iconic moped chase through the metro. It could be argued that the film is rather slow at times, but then those people probably also argue that Blade Runner is rather slow at times. The performances throughout are excellent, although particular note should be made of Fernandez, who is rather more convincing than you’d expect for an acting singer - & her relationship with Andrei is the heart of the film, which is surprisingly touching. The music is great too – with Vladimir Cosma’s inventive score complementing the opera extracts brilliantly. If the thought of the opera music puts you off, then don’t worry – if you can handle it in Argento’s Opera (a film which is not without echoes of Diva) then there’s nothing here to fear. Diva makes no pretences to be any kind of a realistic film, but instead is a work of pure cinematic imagination, a deliciously entertaining spectacle mixing suspenseful thriller, action, love story, existential musings, music, & even a sly humour with lashings of visual style. One of the seminal classics of the 80s, the quintessential essence of Parisian cool, it’s a film which demands to be seen by any true cinema fan.
The film has been available in the US on AB for a while now, but thankfully it’s finally surfaced in the UK. The R2/PAL disc from Warner Home Video has it where it counts, with a decent anamorphic widescreen transfer that – whilst not exactly award-winning – brings out the colours & detail well & isn’t likely to cause any complaints. The sound is French Dolby 2.0 only, with non-removable player-generated subs, which is unspectacular, but nice & clear. I’d love to give a rating for the extras but you get nothing at all, not even a trailer. It’s a shame, since this is a film that could really do with some supplementary material, although the US AB release adds only a 6-minute interview & trailer. At least Warners have done the decent thing & put this at a price point where (if you shop around) you shouldn’t have to spend more than ten pounds. At that price, this is still more than well worth looking at.