Reviews and notes
1982 César Awards, France: Best First Work, Best Cinematography,
Best Music Written for a Film and Best Sound
1983 Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards: Best Foreign Film
1983 BAFTA Awards: Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film
One of the most entertaining debut films in years, Diva
could be called, if classification were essential, a kind of detective story...It deserves to become a classic.
- Philip Strick, Films and Filming, August 1982
is the first feature by Jean-Jacques Beineix, a former assistant to a number of mainstream French directors - Berri, Clement, Zidi, the Trintignants. One notes first its contemporaneity -a hyper-realist, post-punk visual style - overlooking, perhaps, the traditions of humanism and genre cinema, the policier
, in which the film is rooted. For all its violence and ambivalence, Diva
is mobilised in the defence of art and 'free expression'. Evil schemers are outwitted by idle dreamers, and the revered opera singer, the Diva of the title, forgives her adoring fan, Jules, for 'violating' her art by tape recording one of her concerts, something she has never permitted in her professional career. Happy endings are assured as the film gradually supplants the realist logic of the genre with fantasy and wish fulfilment; yet innocence, as symbolised by a seabird endangered by a huge wave in the jigsaw one of the characters is working on, is constantly, perhaps perpetually, under threat.
The particular frisson of Diva
is to witness contemporary stylishness - the elegance of the Diva in her hotel room, the chic of the supercool hero Gorodish - triumphant over ugliness (the punkish gangsters), corruption (the police chief) or inscrutability (the grasping, blackmailing Oriental businessmen). A traditional morality then, in ultramodern garb. But the modernity of Beineix's style should not be undervalued. Pop Art decors, offbeat locations, selective colours and idiosyncratic compositions are assertively used to create a fantasy world which is only a sidestep from crime-movie realism, itself a stylisation from the pulp thriller.
The plot, which turns and U-turns on a confusion over two, and subsequently three, tape recordings the various villains would kill for, is a cunning piece of cinematic adaptation, from a novel by 'Delacorta', that calls attention to the importance of sound. In the opening sequence we hear a full-bodied aria over the credits which is abruptly cut short when the young mailman Jules switches off the cassette machine on his moped. Subsequently, the interaction of classical music with traditional French music or contemporary rock creates further tensions. Beineix also uses silences judiciously interposed between scenes of dialogue and tyre-squealing action.
The texture of his images, however, is even richer than that of the soundtrack, for here Beineix has boldly attempted to integrate two environments - a film familiar Paris, the Place de la Concorde, the Tuilleries, and a newer, more vulgar, Paris of parking lots, wrecked warehouses and pinball arcades. Each milieu is its own significant setting, but the action drives Jules, the 'innocent' object of the malefactors' pursuit, to cross the boundaries, to move from his own loft, decorated with hyper-realist paintings and furnished with little more than a Nagra sound system, to the suite of the Diva, a cool neo-classical interior redolent of the grand operatic tradition, and beyond into the subways and night-time haunts. The interaction of backgrounds is just as unnerving as the tensions between the opposing characters.
Indeed there is little depth in Diva
's characterisation: the boy Jules (Frederic Andrei) is disarmingly obsessed with the Diva (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez); she, in return, shows her 'generosity' by befriending him, though not consummating their relationship sexually. The two pairs of villains are not without style and humour, particularly the balding, ice-pick-wielding punk who detests everything; and the oddball couple, Alba, a Vietnamese girl, and Gorodish, the contemplative 'hero' with the jigsaw who chainsmokes Gitanes and dresses totally in blue, relate more to objects than to feelings but are no less 'human' for all that.
That the film should be so engaging and amusing is attributable rather to the increasingly improbable action, which includes Gorodish luring the police chief to a rendezvous and switching the vital tape recordings, then replacing his treasured white Citroen with an identical model after the first car has been blown sky high in an explosion that conveniently wipes out one pair of villains. Beineix describes these interventions as those of a character manipulating the plot from within; they are reminiscent of Superman or Fantomas in their tongue-in-cheek snubs to dramatic plausibility. In this sense the dramatic structure is strikingly close to the operatic form and it is entirely appropriate that the film should end in an opera-house with the Diva singing an aria from La Wally
Beineix acknowledges opera as a key influence on his work, preferring its heightened demonstrative action and stylised settings to conventional film realism... In his use of classical music in modernist settings Beineix has been compared to the young Godard. The most apposite cross-reference would be to A Bout de Souffle
. Both films display their affection for Hollywood cinema and Americana through a gangster movie plot and the relationship between a Frenchman and an American woman, and both represent a distinctive departure from the ossifying conventions of the national cinema from which they spring. Such a comparison marks Diva
as an auspicious debut from a refreshingly original talent.
- Martyn Auty, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1982
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