Lionsgate // 1981 // 117 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 3rd, 2008
A Comedy. A Thriller. A Romance.
The Cinéma du look movement occurred in France in the 1980s. The films concerned themselves with alienated, urban youth, and launched the careers of directors like Luc Besson. Diva, from director Jean-Jacques Beineix, is the earliest example of the movement and still stands as an astounding piece of French cinema. As part of the launch of its new Meridian Line, Lionsgate brings us a director-approved version of the film with some interesting supplements.
Jules (Frédéric Andréi) is a lonely audiophile obsessed with opera star Cynthia Hawkins (real-life soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez). He makes a clandestine recording at one of her shows (since she has no official recorded output) and steals one of her dresses. However, that's not all the contraband he possesses. A prostitute has recorded a tape which reveals the identity of the head of a local gang specializing in drug and human trafficking. This tape gets placed in Jules' bag while he performs his duties as a postman. With the prostitute murdered, both the police and the mob want her confession, so they begin to hunt for Jules. Meanwhile, a ruthless group of recording executives is after Jules for the tape he made of Cynthia Hawkins. When Jules returns the dress and starts to fall in love with Cynthia, things begin to get really complicated.
As a fan of literature and film, I have encountered a number of first works by various artists, and few show the level of craft on display in Diva, Beineix's first feature. There isn't a single wasted shot, and the camera never once seemed hesitant, whether it was shooting a simple room, or the Paris Metro. This visual style is easily the aspect of the film I most enjoyed. Many first features are overly talky (I'm looking at you, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarentino), because most directors are more comfortable with words than images. Obviously, it's cheaper to write a dozen screenplays than it is to film a single scene in a movie, so the comfort is understandable. However, this is not so with Beineix, who isn't afraid to let his images speak for themselves. In fact several scenes in the film have no dialogue at all but are told completely through the visuals. Also, despite the obvious comfort Beineix has with the camera, none of his visual style seemed over the top or unnecessary. He's certainly not as visually ostentatious as his compatriot Luc Besson.
The other aspect of the film I really enjoyed was the convoluted story. I don't know if it was because of the sparse dialogue or because it was all in French, but I always felt one step behind the movie, plotwise. While this would usually bother me, with Diva it was interesting because the film seemed to have a very good idea about where it was going, and I enjoyed coming along for the ride. In the end it all came to together and made sense, so my momentary confusion was somewhat refreshing after a spate of thrillers where I was pulled by the nose. I also appreciated that this is a thriller, but as the tagline suggests, it has other elements. The love story between Jules and Cynthia is convincingly played, and it was nice to see a film in this genre stop to develop its characters a little.
The DVD itself is a little hard to judge. Watching the film reminded me of looking out a clean window at a dirty landscape. There doesn't appear to be any compression or authoring problems with the disc, but the source just doesn't look that good. The colors are very muted (even more than the "look" of the film would suggest), and there are problems with noise/grain. I have little doubt that this is the best a lower-budget French film from 1981 is going to look. Also, it's worth noting that the transfer was approved by Beiniex himself. The audio, however, I did find pretty impressive considering its origins. The track is only mono, but it does a fine job with the various operatic moments, as well as delivering the dialogue in a crisp, clear manner.
The back of the case lists a commentary and a number of different interviews as part of the special features. These can be broken down into two groups. First, we get a scene-specific commentary by director Jean-Jacques Beiniex. He comments, in French with someone translating as he speaks, on seven scenes from the film. His comments are very interesting, although I would have preferred subtitles in addition to or instead of the audio translation. The second half of the supplements is a collection of interviews under the heading "Searching for Diva." These include more interviews with Beiniex as well as comments from the director of photography, the set designer, and various other members of the cast and crew. These interviews are generally interesting and informative, giving insight into the production and impact of Diva.
One of my favorite moments in the comedy series Spaced involves a rant by the main character Tim about The Rocky Horror Picture Show. During his rant he describes the film as "boil-in-the-bag perversion for sexually repressed accountants and first-year drama students with too many posters of Betty Blue, The Blues Brothers, and Big Blue, and Blue Velvet on their blue bloody walls!" He is, of course, talking about the kind of snob who appreciates certain works of art because he or she has been told they are important, or difficult, and I don't think it's an accident that two of the four films he mentions are from the Cinéma du look movement. In some ways (as the name would suggest), the movement, Diva included, seems to prize surface over substance, leading to its appreciation by a number of shallow cineastes. So, the film could easily be read as a pretentious attempt to make the insular world of a lonely adolescent (Jules) seem important. Approaching the film as a canonized masterwork might heighten this feeling. I recommend ignoring all the hype and appreciating the film as an offbeat and visually stylish thriller, whatever your local film snob might say to the contrary.
Also, all the things I list as positives about the film might be negatives depending on the viewer. Those looking for a simple, direct thriller will likely be disappointed by the visual style and convoluted narrative digressions in Diva.
Diva announced a new voice in world cinema, and Lionsgate has brought that voice into the 21st century with this Meridian Collection DVD. Those looking for a fresh piece of cinema that isn't afraid to bend the rules of genre and convention are urged to seek it out. Those who hate the '80s (or the French) should avoid it at all costs.
Diva is fabulously not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Scene-Specific Audio Commentary with Director Jean-Jacques Beineix
* "Searching for Diva" Interviews with the Cast and Crew
* Wikipedia entry on "Cinema du look"