Better known for his classic Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s first feature film Diva from 1981 is also something of a cult classic, setting the tone for the French cinéma du look of the 1980’s. Unfortunately, being very much of their time has the inevitable effect of dating many of these films, and that is particularly the case with Diva.
A young post-office delivery-man, Jules (Frédéric Andréi) has a passion for opera and makes a secret recording of the opera diva Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) at a recital. After the performance he also steals a gown from her dressing room. While on his deliveries he gets caught-up in a police investigation into a crime ring which is illegally smuggling women into prostitution from Eastern Europe. He witness two thugs Spic and le Curé (the wonderful Dominique Pinon), kill a Russian prostitute, Nadia, who is about to hand over an incriminating tape to the police. Unaware that the tape has been placed in the carrier of his bike, he finds himself in the possession of two important recordings, being sought after by police and criminals alike.
In much the same way the Nouvelle Vague directors eschewed the formalism of traditional French cinema, the young directors of the 1980’s turned their backs on the po-faced self-importance of the new cinema elite. Not terribly concerned with realism, the films of Leos Carax, Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix were more about getting in touch with the style, the look and language of the day. Combining noir-ish crime plots and with fairy-tale like settings, the characters of these films usually inhabit dark, exotic and dramatic locations – the tramps on Paris’s oldest bridge in Les Amants du Pont Neuf or the underground denizens of the Metro in Besson’s Subway. In Diva, Jules lives in a garage, surrounded by car-wrecks and wall-paintings. He makes the acquaintance of a kind of Zen artist/photographer Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) and Alba (Thuy An Luu), his exotic Vietnamese model who live on banks of the Seine in an abandoned warehouse the size of the Musée d’Orsay. In these kind of films small events take on global proportions – a tramp on the streets of Paris can find her face plastered on posters across the whole city, while radio announcements chart the progress of her search (Les Amants du Pont Neuf), while in Diva, the theft of a gown from an opera singer’s dressing room makes front-page headlines. It’s all slightly preposterous, but it was never intended to take itself seriously.
The plot of Diva motors along fairly unexceptionally in a crime-thriller way, but it is the rather more unusual element of the bootlegged opera recording and the improbable relationship that is struck up between the young man and the opera singer Cynthia Hawkins that gives Diva a more human quality that has survived where much else in the film has dated. Wilhelmenia Fernandez is surprisingly good in the role of the diva who won’t make records and has never heard a playback of her own singing voice. She’s not a natural actress by any means, but as a real opera singer she has the imperious qualities of the diva, a striking beauty and most importantly, a fine voice which has immortalised Catalini’s ‘La Wally’ – the aria which is used to stunning effect throughout the film. It’s this unusual plot device and performance that make Diva still just that little bit more special than other films of this period.
The Warner Bros/Studio Canal transfer to DVD of Diva has certainly given the film a new lease of life. A nice, clean transfer with barely a mark or spot on the print, Diva has never looked better. Deep colours, icy-cool blues, strong blacks and barely a hint of grain – the 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer of the film is gorgeous. Annoyingly, this is only marred by slight traces of minor compression to get the 2-hour film onto a single-layer disc, but this is generally only noticeable in the occasional shimmer of grilles and horizontal lines. This is only apparent on one or two occasions though and generally the picture quality is of an extremely high standard.
The film comes with the original Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack and there is little to fault here. It’s clear with only minor background noise and both the original 80’s score and the opera pieces come across exceptionally well – strong and vibrant.
Subtitles are fixed, same as on the other Warner World Cinema titles (Kurosawa’s Ran, Blier’s Buffet Froid). They can’t be mandatory for licencing reasons since Studio Canal/Warner would also own the rights to the French releases.
Also disappointing is the lack of any extra features on the DVD. Not even a trailer is included here.
Diva is no longer as cool and enigmatic as it once appeared and it now looks slightly daft and dated. Some of the film’s qualities still shine through however – its sense of time, its locations, lighting, photography and the central story of the postman and the diva. Its influence can be seen in the films of Jeunet et Caro (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) and particularly Blade Runner (1982). The quality of the DVD certainly helps the film retain a certain vibrancy and if you are happy enough with a very good barebones presentation of the film at a low-price, then Diva is still worth a look.