A French mailman records a bootleg of his favorite opera singer and then ends up with another tape, this one a confession of a prostitute implicating a high ranking police official of a slave ring. He finds himself in danger as different people are after him and will kill to get what they want.
With a unique mix of French New Wave Cinema and classic seventies style procedural thrillers, Diva is a movie that revolutionized French cinema. It almost comes across as a mixture of Godard’s À bout de soufflé and Friedkin’s The French Connection. It also brings a lot of the early MTV video generation to the proceedings, replacing the rock and roll with opera, played lovingly throughout the film.
Directed in 1981 by Jean-Jacques Beineix, based on the adaptation of the novel by the same name, Diva tells the story of a young postman named Jules (Frédéric Andréi) who has an almost unhealthy obsession with opera singer Cynthia (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), making every effort to see all her performances, regardless of the distance. Because Cynthia, the diva of the title, refuses to allow her singing to be recorded, Jules sneaks a recording device into the concert to capture a bootleg of her performance so he can enjoy it whenever he wants. He also creepily steals her robe, an event that actually makes headlines in local papers.
Two men see him recording the performance and follow him, attempting to steal the tapes and make a profit from it. Meanwhile, a prostitute has made a recording of her own, implicating a corrupt policeman in a slave ring and, before she is killed, slips the tape into Jules’ mailbag. Jules finds himself on the run from corrupt police officers, investigative news reporters and the men who want the opera tape, without realizing exactly what he has in his possession. Jules comes across a couple of bohemians and takes refuge with them while deciding to reach out to Cynthia, admitting his guilt and hoping to move on. I am surprised to see Andréi did not follow up this performance with a career in French cinema. He is solid in his role as Jules and carries himself admirably throughout the film. Fernandez, a professional singer, also did an admirable job as the diva while most of the other characters were generic but remain interesting.
The music is breathtaking. While I am by no means a fan of opera, the use of the music in this film influences the tone and helps it rise above a typical genre styled film. While many action films today use this genre of music to emphasize their scenes, Diva uses it for a reason and there is a purpose for this specific music to exist in this movie. Next to the music, the direction is a highlight of the film. Beineix chooses shots that linger lovingly over the canvas and he creates a beautiful movie to watch. He avoids the New Wave penchant for content and behavior over aesthetics and form and presents Diva as a genre film, a traditional narrative, that still retains the look and feel of New Wave Cinema. With Diva, Beineix helped usher in the new style of French cinema known as the Cinema Du Look movement that influenced everyone from Luc Besson to Michael Mann. Instead of just focusing on his characters with the camera, he showcased the beauty of the city itself. It was revolutionary in the day and remains gorgeous almost thirty years later.
Diva is a movie that, in much the form of French New Wave Cinema, is not concerned with the plot. There is more to this plot than many classics in that specific genre, but this film is about a love of visual cinema. Beineix’s career never took off after this great start and that is a shame. From the quality performances to the amazing cinematography to the fabulous music score, this is a movie that hits on every level.
Jean-Jacques Beineix gives a scene specific commentary for seven of the film’s scenes. The commentary is in French but an English translator speaks over the commentary. There is a documentary called Searching for Diva which goes through all processes of filming. Instead of using subtitles for the French speaking cast and crew, a narrator once again speaks over them. It is a thoroughly complete look at the film and since it is a Meridian Collection release all the features delve deep into the film itself instead of the fluff pieces you might be used to.