Last night, PJ and I went out to dinner and a movie with friends. We decided to see Diva, a 1981 French movie that was playing in our art house theater. None of us really knew what to expect, but we knew that the film had been well reviewed, so we decided to give it a try.

Diva is about Jules, played by Frédéric Andréi. Jules is a delivery man in Paris who loves soprano Cynthia Hawkins, played by Wilhelmenia Fernandez, who refuses to make a recording of her performances. Jules, however, creates an illicit recording of each of her concerts for his own private enjoyment. In the opening sequence, he also steals her dress, also for his private, though not so alone, enjoyment. While dealing with the ramifications of his piracy, he also accidentally becomes embroiled in an international prostitution/drug ring when a prostitute slips a taped confession/accusation into his mailbag. While Taiwanese “businessmen” and the international crime lord begin pursuing Jules, he is befriended by a pair of bohemian artists who may hold the solution to all of his problems, if they don’t sell him and his tapes to the highest bidder. In between chase sequences, Jules has time to court his favorite diva, who becomes intrigued by his obsession with her.

Here’s the trailer:

While our two friends and Paul were less than impressed by Diva, I loved it. (I temporarily took back that statement, but after thinking more about the film, I’ve decided that I’m back to loving it.)

This movie was directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix and initiated a style of French film making called Cinema du look, which prioritized style over content. The slogan for these films says it all: “The image is the message.” Several sites that I’ve looked at since seeing the movie note that this movement was a reaction against the realist films of the 1970s, but the movement as a whole lacked a specific political point of view.

Diva has been hailed as the prime example of cinema du look. This clip of the opening sequence suggests why:

Like some of the other examples of this movement, Diva juxtaposes “high culture,” in this case opera, with pop culture. Beineix uses the operatic soundtrack to great affect. The high/pop contrast can also be seen in the shots of the magnificent concert hall and Parisian statuary in contrast to the images of tape recorders, cars, and arcades.

Beineix also emphasizes color. As the opening shots demonstrate, Jules is dresses in bright reds and blues. His moped is bright yellow.

This movie is also know for its fantastic chase sequence in which a police officer chases Jules on foot while Jules is on his motorbike. Here’s a clip (unfortunately dubbed) I found of it:

Throughout the film, the camera angles, visual spectacle, and lighting are simply amazing.One more example:

Because this movie emphasizes style over content, it really doesn’t care too much about the believability of the plot, most of which is rather implausible. The point seems to be to give the audience a stylish, thrilling ride rather than a realistic plot. I ended up liking that. I enjoyed the ride and was simply delighted with the film’s look and sound.

Finally, I also enjoyed the film’s seeming comment on art. It questions whether art should be commercialized or only created for art’s sake. In fact, I think it deconstructs this binary, arguing that the commodification of art and the pure aesthetics of art are really mutually exclusive.

Diva is now available in a remastered DVD version. I highly recommend it. It’s a thrilling, delightful ride.