Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix
Production: Les Films Galaxie/Greenwich Film Production/Antenne 2; color, 35mm; running time: 117 minutes; some prints are 123 minutes. Filmed on location in Paris and Normandy (Gatteville Lighthouse).
Producer: Irene Silberman; screenplay: Beineix and Jean Van Hamme, from the novel by Delacorta; photography: Philippe Rousselot; editors: Monique Prim, Marie-Josephe Yoyotte; sound: Jean-Pierre Ruh; art director: Hilton McConnico; production designer: Ully Pickard; costume design: Claire Fraisse; music: Vladimir Cosma, with arias by Alfredo Catalini ("Ebben? . . . Ne andrò lontanno" from La Wally) and Charles Gounod ("Ave Maria").
Cast: Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez (Cynthia Hawkins); Frédéric Andréi (Jules); Richard Bohringer (Gorodish); An Luu Thuy (Alba); Jacques Fabbri (Jean Saporta); Anny Romand (Paula); Patrick Floersheim (Zatopek); Gerard Darmon (L'Antillais); Dominique Pinon (Le curé)
Awards: César Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Music, Best New Director and Best Sound, 1982; National Society of Film Critics (USA) Award for Best Cinematography, 1982.
Beineix, Jean-Jacques, Diva (scenario), in Avant-Scène Cinéma (Paris), December 1991.
Parent, Denis, et al., Jean-Jacques Beineix, version originale, Paris, 1989.
Powrie, Phil, French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis ofMasculinity, Oxford, 1997.
Kelly, Ernece B., "Diva: High Tech Sexual Politics," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), 1984.
Interview in Film Comment (New York), February 1987.
Hagen, W.M., "Performance Space in Diva," in Literature/FilmQuarterly (Salisbury), 1988.
Peary, "A Tough Act to Follow," in American Film (Hollywood), January 1990.
Jameson, Frederick, "Diva and French Socialism," in Signatures ofthe Visible, New York, 1992.
Yervasi, Carina L., "Capturing the Elusive Representations in Beineix's Diva," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), 1993.
Olivier, Bert, "No Recording Please! This Is Art. Or: What Do Cynthia Hawkins and Walter Benjamin Have in Common (Not)?" in South African Journal of Philosophy, February 1996.
* * *
Diva was welcomed internationally as an early crest of a French Newer Wave and a major work by a first-time director. Though not truly radical either politically or stylistically—say, in the manner of such "old" New Wavers as Godard or Rivette—it had a hip 1980s sensibility that overlay its indebtedness to the lighter sort of Alfred Hitchcock thriller, in which an innocent but not quite guiltless person becomes the target of an international conspiracy. In contrast to the equally Hitchcockian murder-among-the-haute-bourgeoisie thrillers of Claude Chabrol, Diva was more of a pop entertainment, its hero a moped-riding postal worker who lives in a really cool industrial space, and one of the villains is a punk of the shaven-head-and-sunglasses variety. Moreover, the film featured multiracial casting and a savvy mix of very different kinds of music, from Italian opera to technopop and New Age. Director Jean-Jacques Beineix was not exactly a prodigy—he was 35 and a veteran assistant director when it was released—but Diva, if somewhat of a period piece today, remains brimful of youthful energy.
Beineix's script asks the viewer to accept an exceedingly unlikely premise. It is not so much that a world-class operatic soprano believes so strongly in the power and integrity of live performance that she refuses to make recordings and has never even heard her own voice— but that no one besides the film's young hero has ever smuggled a high-quality tape recorder into a concert hall to make an illicit tape of her. The whole plot hinges upon this presumption, beginning with the sinister attempts of two Taiwanese record pirates sitting behind Jules at the concert to get the tape by any means possible. To be sure, if one goes beyond the literal and the expedient (to set the plot in motion), there is much that is fascinating about this situation: for example, the spectacle of a man trying to capture the "essence" of a woman by robbing her, even "violating" her as the diva later claims; or the paradox that the sacred act of live performance, the aura of the glorious moment, can be represented by the endlessly reproducible medium of cinema.
The other moment that sets the plot in motion is the sort of coincidence common among thrillers: a woman about to be stabbed by a member of an international drug and prostitution ring slips an incriminating tape into Jules' moped bag. The presence of two tapes and two sets of criminals leads to the sort of massive confusion that can only be resolved by a final shootout. But several factors make Diva fresher than most conventional thrillers, and more complex than other hits of its era.
One such factor is the casting. Frédéric Andréi as Jules (an oldfashioned name according to the diva—one which "fits you so badly that it fits you very well") is the type of slight-of-build, intense young Frenchman embodied most famously perhaps by Jean-Pierre Léaud around the time of Baisers Volées (Stolen Kisses). Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez, recruited from the opera stage, may not be a true diva, but as Cynthia Hawkins she is lovely enough of voice and regal enough in demeanor to play one very well. And An Luu Thuy as Alba, the street kid alert to all things "cool" (her word in French), brings into play a very different cultural world from Cynthia's, while Jules appears to straddle both worlds. (Perhaps the film's initial success was due in some measure to the "exotic" casting of an African American and a Vietnamese women as the French hero's potential love interests.) Alba and Jules, becoming pals rather than lovers, parallel each other in interesting ways. Both are shown stealing music—he Cynthia's voice (and incidentally her gown); she recordings from a store—and both are involved with an older person, though actual sexual relations in either case are unspecified. Jules manages to talk his way into Cynthia's hotel suite and becomes increasingly intimate with her; Alba evidently lives with Gorodish, a sort of New Age guru whose loft apartment is as vast as Jules' but more serenely spare. Gorodish, played with unflappable calm by Richard Bohringer, has a curious function in the plot: seemingly detached from all the goings-on, he takes charge during the last third of the film, rescuing Jules and thwarting the villains pretty much single-handedly by doing little more than operating a few gadgets.
Diva is quite deftly edited, and photographed with great flair by Philippe Rousselot, who went on to works as diverse as Henry and June and A River Runs Through It. The crew's panache is amply in evidence in the film's most famous action sequence, a chase through the Métro with Jules on his moped and a cop (rather improbably) keeping up on foot; but there are less showy scenes that are superbly accomplished, like the opening sequence at the concert hall. Few sopranos on film can have had made a more portentous appearance onstage, with Beineix's camera alert to every detail of the stripped-down (half-renovated?) gray auditorium—so perfect a foil to the glamorous gown and voice of the diva—plus the mirrorshaded Taiwanese, the wheels of Jules' tape recorder turning and the tear running down his cheek, all set to music which begins serenely, yet suspensefully, and expands to Italianate passion.
The sets and locations often seem to be the actual stars of the film. The Parisian exteriors are gritty or blatantly romantic (Jules' and Cynthia's misty dawn walk), as the occasion demands. A Normandy lighthouse-hideaway is austerely monumental and not the least picturesque. Jules' garage/loft is a cross between an automobile graveyard and a chic art gallery, with surrealistic murals of floating cars with real headlights beyond the wrecks of actual vehicles and his elaborate sound system. Gorodish may have a conventional kitchen for teaching the Zen of baguette-buttering, but most of his loft is empty dark blue space, suitable for Alba to roller-skate around in, with just a few free-standing objects: a wave sculpture, a functioning bathtub, a jigsaw puzzle of a wave.
One other truly distinctive feature of Diva is its juxtapositions of very different kinds of music. The film elevated Catalini's Act I aria from La Wally from a number known mainly to connoisseurs to Puccinian popularity; its several repetitions along with other vocal music—as when Cynthia rehearses at the piano with a damp-fromthe-bath Jules at her side—provide moments of great calm amidst the frantic goings-on of the thriller plot. In other scenes, Gorodish plays the sort of New Age music one expects to hear while buying crystals; Jules rides his moped around to stormy operatic interludes we could take for soundtrack music until he abruptly cuts off his motor; and Vladimir Cosma's actual soundtrack has an appropriate Europop beat. One satisfying auditory joke comes near the end when we discover that the icepick-wielding punk villain has been listening to Parisian cafe music, concertina and all, on his headset.
The pastiche of musical styles was one of a great many features which made Diva seem a perfect example of postmodernism to its early critics, including both those who loved it and those who reviled it for the same thing: being all glittering surface and attitude. In any case, Beineix's much anticipated second feature, The Moon in the Gutter (1983), received little but scorn upon its appearance (partly for the artifice of its sets, as in Francis Coppola's 1982 One From the Heart). Since then he has completed only a handful of other films, notably the erotic drama Betty Blue (1986). But Diva, whether analyzed for its representations (perhaps objectification) of women or its postmodern sensibility or celebrated for its perspectives on young love and love of music and Paris—passionate and "cool" at once— remains an important document of its era.
di·va / ˈdēvə/ • n. a famous female opera singer: your average opera isn't over till the diva trills her high notes. ∎ a female singer who has enjoyed great popular success: a chance to create a full-blown pop diva. ∎ an admired, glamorous, or distinguished woman: the former director of the association is still a downtown diva. ∎ a haughty, spoiled woman: she's such a diva that she won't enter a restaurant until they change the pictures on the walls to her liking.
Diva ★★★½ 1982 (R)
While at a concert given by his favorite star, a young French courier secretly tapes a soprano who has refused to record. The film follows the young man through Paris as he flees from two Japanese recording pirates, and a couple of crooked undercover police who are trying to cover-up for the chief who not only has a mistress, but runs a prostitution ring. Brilliant and dazzling photography compliment the eclectic soundtrack. 123m/C VHS, DVD . FR Frederic Andrei, Roland Bertin, Richard Bohringer, Gerard Darmon, Jacques Fabbri, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Dominique Pinon; D: Jean-Jacques Beineix; W: Jean-Jacques Beineix; C: Philippe Rousselot; M: Vladimir Cosma. Cesar '82: Cinematog., Sound, Score; Natl. Soc. Film Critics '82: Cinematog.