1981 was the year French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix’s first feature hit movie theaters in France. Beineix, who had previously worked as first assistant to directors Claude Zidi and Claude Berri, made a movie that can easily be regarded as both an auteurist endeavor and a mainstream thriller. Despite Diva being a unique amalgamation of the artistic and the commercial, it did not manage to succeed at the French box office upon its initial release. But after getting much-deserved attention in the United States, the number of French viewers started to grow. As a result, the film played in Parisian theaters for a whole year and won four César awards—for Best Cinematography, Best First Feature, Best Sound and Best Music. With a screenplay penned by Jean Van Hamme and the director himself, Diva is an adaptation of the eponymous 1979 novel, the work of Swiss writer, poet and Zen master Daniel Odier, who wrote it under the pseudonym Delacorta. Apart from being given a second chance at success, Diva had another ace up her sleeve—the film marked the onset of a movement in French cinematography that critic Raphaël Bassan would analyze in a 1989 issue of “La Revue du Cinéma”. Its name: cinéma du look. Its representatives: Beineix, Luc Besson (Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990)) and Leos Carax (Boy Meets Girl (1984), Mauvais Sang (1986), Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)). In Guy Austin’s “Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction”, Bassan is said to have welcomed cinéma du look as “a break with the ‘chronic naturalism’ of French cinema” and valued “its synthesis of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art as well as its engagement with the problems of alienated protagonists who are outside any cozy familial structures.” In Diva’s case, the ‘high’ refers to the aforementioned artistic segment narratively rooted in high-brow culture, whereas the ‘low’ can be assigned to its thriller plot.
Diva follows a young postman named Jules (played by Frederic Andrei), who is in awe of and infatuated with American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (portrayed by American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, whose only acting credit is Diva). With a professional recorder safely tucked away in his bag, Jules attends the singer’s performance of the aria “Ebben? Ne andròlontana” from the famous opera “La Wally” and makes an illegal cassette recording. Little does he know that the two suspicious men sitting behind him in the audience are in fact Taiwanese bootleggers who want to steal his prized possession. And it is indeed prized, for Jules did not record his favorite singer so as to make a quick buck, quite the contrary—the recording is intended for private use. But the two men are not the only ones trying to get a hold of a cassette that Jules happens to have on him. A prostitute on the run, knowing she is being followed, manages to slip a tape of her own into Jules’ bag in the middle of a busy street, just before getting murdered by two gangsters in broad daylight. The tape she cleverly hid before drawing her last breath contains her testimony against an esteemed man she accuses of leading a prostitution ring. Jules, of course, has no idea that hidden in his bag lies such an important piece of evidence. But both the police and the two gangsters do. Still blissfully unaware of the chaos that will soon ensue (including, but not limited to, a brilliantly filmed scene where the protagonist, in a noteworthy attempt to escape the cops, races his moped up and down two flights of stairs), Jules eventually visits Cynthia Hawkins herself and becomes friends with a young Vietnamese-French girl called Alba and her companion, the much older Serge Gorodish.
We soon find out why Jules’ illicit tape of the singer’s performance is in such high demand. Cynthia has never made a single recording nor does she intend to, due to her deeply rooted belief that true creation happens in those fleeting moments shared between an artist and their audience. Therefore, recordings only tell half the story and are devoid of the magic necessary for something to be considered art, which is why “business should adapt to art, not the other way around”, as she states. Her idealistic stances are juxtaposed with the harsh reality dictated by the market, as shown through the characters of the two bootleggers willing to go the extra mile to get their hands on a recording of her voice—not because it is good (although it is), but because it is good for business. For them, art becomes a commodity. But for Jules, the tape represents the exact opposite, allowing him to savor the deeply touching performance he had previously witnessed, by reliving it over and over again.
The truly wonderful thing about Diva is the way in which Beineix utilizes music, the aforementioned aria in particular, to depict the emotional state of his protagonist. When Jules hears Cynthia live, he is moved to tears, with the act of recording representing his attempt at preserving her voice, because on the one hand, he cherishes her and everything she embodies, and on the other, he relates to the opera that tells the story of leaving one’s home behind and ending up alone in the world, with the aria’s final lines being “There, through the white snow; I will go, I will go alone and far. Through the golden clouds”. In true cinéma du look style, the outsider Jules remains on the run for the remainder of the film, unable to return to the shrine-like place he used to call home. Every time the aria is played during the course of the movie, we are reminded of the circumstances the protagonist finds himself in.
And while we get to know Jules through his connection to the aria and Cynthia through her stance on art, the characters of Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) and Alba (Thuy An Luu) remain a mystery as both individuals and as a tandem. Beineix does not give us any backstory or context regarding their respective lives and their questionable relationship. But the author Delacorta does, seeing as how several of his novels center around the dynamic duo, with Gorodish being described as a depressive pianist and Alba as his underage muse and romantic partner who he never actually has a sexual relationship with. But the fact that we as viewers know next to nothing about them ups the level of intrigue that Beineix so effortlessly delivers. Therefore, the bohemian musician and his young protegee make for a wonderful addition to an already colorful plethora of characters whose paths unexpectedly cross thanks to Jules and the two tapes that get him in more trouble than he bargained for.
DP/30: Jean-Jacques Beineix (2009)
All of the characters and their idiosyncrasies put aside, what makes Diva a true joy to watch is its impeccable style, courtesy of both Beineix and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. Every single shot is so visually appealing that it becomes impossible to look away, even for those viewers who find the plot a bit convoluted at times. Movies that belong to the cinéma du look movement have often been said to value style over substance, but Diva manages to deliver both, at certain times flaunting its style for style’s sake and at others using the how as a means of truly highlighting the equally important what.
JEAN-JACQUES BEINEIX & BEATRICE DALLE interview (Antenne 2-France, 1986)
A Brief History of Cinéma Du Look