Cross After Hours with Blood Simple, throw in some opera, relocate to Paris, and you get Diva. Not so terrible a combination, undoubtedly, and not so derivative as it sounds. Released in 1981, director Jean-Jacques Beineix’s debut anticipated a number of styles that would make waves across cinema throughout the following decade, displaying a near prophetic mastery of key elements used to form the cinéma du look movement, of which directors Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet are the most well known.
Diva begins with Frédéric Andréi as a somewhat dim but likeable postman named Jules who harbors an innocent fixation with opera singer Cynthia Hawkins, played by real-life soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez. The opening sequence has Jules sneaking a high-quality tape deck into a concert by Hawkins, who famously refuses to record her music, followed by a truly captivating performance of an aria from La Wally, the first of several wonderful scenes set to classical music. From this first instance, Jules’s purity of intention arises, moved into action by misplaced admiration. From his awkward first encounter with Hawkins, a strange but oddly believable romance grows. Beineix also uses this moment to establish a solid aesthetic foundation that echoes the sonic palette of A Clockwork Orange and the unhurried atmosphere of a Godard film.
The day after the concert, a mysterious woman (Chantal Deruaz) drops an incriminating tape of corrupt police chief Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) into Jules’s mailbag before being killed by a pair of shady henchmen known as The West Indian and The Priest (Gérard Darmon and Dominique Pinon). Both the henchmen and the police department, unaware of Saporta’s involvement, pursue Jules while a pair of Taiwanese bootleggers attempt to get their hands on his valuable recording of Cynthia. The entanglement of these parties constitute a distinctive, almost shaggy-dog aspect to the proceedings, further complicated by the involvement of Jules’s newfound friends Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), a dapper and mystical artist, and his muse, a childlike and curious Vietnamese-French model named Alba (Thuy An Luu). When not being chased on the dazzlingly shot streets of the city, Jules and his counterparts navigate his predicament in Gorodish’s trippy studio loft filled with contemporary art.
Andréi makes an adequate protagonist, but in this winding conspiracy tale, the side characters take center stage. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With multiple names and plotlines to follow, a film like Diva runs the risk of devolving into a tangled mess, but each personality is so distinctive, the motivations so simple, that it never comes close to that. Standouts include the intensely watchable Bohringer as the charmingly hard-to-pin-down Godorish, and Fernandez, beautifully talented as a singer and impressively credible as an actor. Additionally, Beineix strikes a perfect balance in pacing between leisurely and brisk so as to provide clarity and suspense as needed. These well-conceived elements render the knowingly preposterous plot into a more-than forgivable exercise in style and heightened reality.
While not quite achieving success upon its initial release, Diva has since gone on to become a cult film. For fans of Taxidermia or Amélie, it’s an ideal crime thriller, plus an artsy neo-noir. Furthermore, this Kino release comes as a special edition, including tons of great extras. Included among them are a full commentary by author Simon Abrams and a scene specific commentary by Beineix, numerous interviews, and two short films. To be sure, a top-notch Kino release. | Nic Champion