Diva (1981): Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Delirious Debut

A case of style over substance? Perhaps. But more likely, it’s a case of style is substance, for it’s impossible to separate the two in “Diva,” the delirious, highly enjoyable thriller, which represents Jean-Jacques Beineix’s impressive directorial debut.

This 1981 work is credited with the renaissance of foreign language films–particularly French–in the early 1980s.  But “Diva” holds up extremely well, and remains impressive viewing a generation later, as was evident in a recent run at New York’s entrepreneurial Film Forum.

A combo of thriller and fairytale romance, “Diva” draws on a diversity of genres, including mystery and film noir, with Beinex’s cool approach recalling the early French New Wave, in style, subject matter-and love of pure cinema. Beineix had spent years working as assistant director before he made “Diva,” and it shows. In crafting an arty genre film, he has also made it his own, adding elements of fantasy, romance, and even a touch of existentialism.

Frederic Andrei plays Jules (a tribute to Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim”), a young moped courier who is smitten by an Afro American opera star, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). Since Cynthia has always refused to record her voice, Jules makes a high quality bootleg of the diva’s performance for his personal enjoyment, only to be chased by copyright pirates who want to release the recording for profit.

When the tape is mistaken with another tape that’s accidentally dropped into his carrying bag, it implicates a high official in a drug and prostitution ring. Pursued by copyright pirates and corrupt police, Jules turns to his mysterious new friends Alba (Thuy An Luu) and Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) for help; Gorodish is described at one point as “going through his cool period.”

The mix-up and incrimination of the police force in racketeering and murder set the plot in motion. However, entertaining as it is, the plot is secondary to the charming if unlikely central couple and the film’s contagious style. Though based on the mystery novel by Delacorta, at the time, some critics held that the casual, offhand plot was a parody of the Watergate Scandal, as well as Hollywood blockbusters such as The French Connection.”

What we care about is not the tape-switch, or even the pair of psychopathic thugs (Pinon and Gerard Darmon) on Jules’ trail, but the threat of turning Jules’ obsessive dream of a romance with the beautiful, older opera singer into a nightmare.

Beineix and cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot have made a playful, visual work that uses to the max the unique properties of film as a medium. Indeed, one of the most exciting feature debut in years, “Diva” is unified by its inventive production design, extraordinary dcor, and color schemes, which combine pop art with surrealism, placed against a more realistic milieu of contemporaneous Paris.

Paying home to a staple of Hollywood actioners, there’s a great chase scene through the Paris Metro. But Beineix has the smarts to contrast the action sequences with the languid ambience of Gorodish’s loft and the romantic piano music of Jules and Cynthia’s night walk through Paris. Beineix and Rousselot imbue the film with seductive neon hues.

Vladimir Cosma’s opera-tinged score, which draws on Act I of Alfredo Catalani’s “La Wally,” is impressive, creating a witty, playful film that’s highly diverting. With its distinctive touches, this exquisitely composed hybrid of genres (noir, neo New Wave, interracial fairytale romance) serves as a reminder of why we fell in love with the movies in the first place.

Cast

Jules (Frederic Andrei)
Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez)
Gorodish (Richard Bohringer)
Alba (Thuy An Luu)
Saporta (Jacques Fabri)
Nadia (Chantal Deruaz
Weinstadt (Robert Berlin)
L’Antillais (Gerard Darmon)
Le Cure (Dominique Pinon)
Krantz (Jean-Jacques Moreau

Credits

Galaxie/Greenwich production.
Running time: 123 Minutes

Produced by Irene Silberman.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Beinex
Screenplay: Beineix and Jean Van Hamme, based on the novel by Delacorte
Camera: Philippe Rousselot.
Editor: Marie-Josephe Yoyotte, Monique Prim.
Music: Valdimir Cosma
Art Direction: Hilton MCConnico.