Diva June 11, 2015
Jules (Fréderic Andréi) doesn’t need any of the assorted divas to which the world bows down. The other lonely young men of the Earth’s population have Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Cher. He could laugh at their mainstream appeal, their obsession with dancing/voguing the night away at the nearest discothèque. But he’s much too shy (and straight) for that nonsense.
Instead of waiting for a Madonna of some kind to help him shimmy down the dance floor for the rest of his young life, he opts for Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins-Fernandez), an opera star renowned for her glamour and exquisite singing voice.
Cynthia is a diva, no doubt, but she is Jules’s diva. As she hates the idea of the business side of music, she has never recorded a performance or, heaven forbid, an LP. So one only has the option to see her live. The few that know of her don’t just listen, watch; they change as a human. They leave a concert with a completely new, romanticized outlook on life.
At least that’s how Jules regards her. A massive poster of Cynthia’s stunning face rests next to his bed, acting as guidance; when she holds a recital near his home, he not only steals one of her dresses — he also captures her performance on a professional quality audio recorder. These acts are not out of malice but of desperation. He lives the life of a lonely postman, having little to cling onto besides his beloved diva.
As the film opens, nothing is at stake. Cut just a few minutes into Diva, though, and you’ll find Jules going from nobody to human target in a dramatic flash and bang. Attending the very same concert are two Taiwanese gangsters, who take notice of Jules’ cunning. He becomes a danger to himself, as they would do anything to get their paws on the priceless recording. But things don’t end there.
The following day, when performing his usual mail route, a prostitute (Chantal Deruaz), killed moments later, drops a cassette in his moped’s carrier pouch. That cassette, as it so happens, bears a story that could spell the death sentence for an important law enforcement figure. Also complicating Jules’ situation are a flirtatious Vietnamese gigi (Thuy An Luu) and her mysterious lover (Richard Bohringer), who have decidedly unclear motives.
On its surface, Diva appears to be a De Palma-meets-Godard visual orgy. But after you cut through its many layers of innovative, celebratory, stylistic cues, you’ll find yourself infatuated with its quasi-convoluted (yet simple) story of intrigue. Here is a film deserving of applause for its near-perfect courtship of style and story. Diva is an obvious cinematic enchilada of all your favorite thriller delicacies, but it is also so much more than that.
Though it was the directorial debut for the now cinema du look-defining Jean-Jacques Beineix, it is so assured in its technical and artistic every decision that we feel as though our lives are being manipulated by something akin to a roller coaster, safety controlled but also head-spinningly unpredictable.
Beineix likes to toy with us, and for once, obeying the puppet master proves advantageous. Look at the climactic, wildly implausible moped vs. police car chase, for instance. It takes detours down stairs, through narrow alleyways, and into the subway. It’s all fantasy pulp, but Beineix’s extravagant fondling of the camera makes it all seem possible. That’s a sign of a good film, making sheer artificiality seem real. He is a visual poet of the highest common denominator.
His images speak louder than words. The opening, focusing on the concert, flips back and forth between the complexions of Jules, through medium shots, Cynthia, through awestruck, close/far angles, and the gangsters. We know that Jules will be the hero, Cynthia the lovely female lead, because cinematographer Philippe Rousselot handles their faces, their bodies, with transfixed appreciation. The criminals, in contrast, are only judged by their sunglasses, which the camera sees as a defining feature. The scene contains no dialogue, unless you count Fernandez’s soul-stirring voice.
The characters are developed slyly and imaginatively. And other individuals, such as the childish Vietnamese girl and her boyfriend (or lover/father figure/spiritual leader?), live in a loft defined by its blue saturation and sparse furniture. The way their motives remain foggy throughout the movie, how they retreat in the apartment as though it were a rich pop artist’s oasis away from the European world, makes them seem otherworldly, completely invincible, ageless.
Though Diva's most dependent on style, it contains a staggering amount of evocative performances, too. Andréi possesses a youthful quality that makes him indefinable and difficult to dislike; Fernandez, in her only film role, lives up to the title of the diva and acts as an impossibly knowing, appealing obsession. Luu is agreeably strange and pixieish, while Bohringer stays simultaneously trustworthy and untrustworthy — he is stupendously enigmatic.
Some have said that Diva has better visuals than it does actual story, but such an assumption undermines Beineix’s mastery. He finds a deft balance between artistic and tonal strength, through his visual ticks and plot implausibilities. It is a wild ride, a thriller ready to delight with its unconformity. A