Feb 3 2011

Diva (1981)

Dazzling and Thrilling. 3 1/2 out of 4.

The 1980’s was a time when style superseded substance; music, fashion, television and film all seemed more concerned about the way they looked- which is does not mean they had nothing to say.  Granted, while some mediums of pop culture in this era were superficial, others used visuals to tell the story, but most were a little of both, and unabashedly so.

The “cinema du look” movement in France was a response to the French New Wave, in which filmmakers like Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson and Leos Carax favored experimenting with visual spectacle rather than with a film’s narrative.  The result was the creative use of primary colors, lighting and mise en scene to create a world that spoke for itself.  Amongst the first cinema du look films was Beineix’s Diva, which was made at the beginning of the decade and set the bar for the rest of the movement.

Diva begins with Jules (Frederic Andrei), a young delivery boy, attending an opera concert starring Cynthia Dawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), a diva who refuses to be recorded.  Jules manages to record the concert, but not for the sake of profit; an avid fan of opera, Jules simply wants to listen and experience the music on his own accord.  When Jules unknowingly receives a tape revealing the identity of a sex and drugs trafficker, Jules finds himself pursued by cops, thugs, and a pair of mysterious Taiwanese gentlemen.  Assuming this pursuit is a result of his illegal recording, Jules hides away in the back alleys and subways of Paris, comes across a pair of quirky fellow art lovers, and forms a touching relationship with his diva.

When one hears a terms like “style over substance,” or “spectacle over narrative,” most probably imagine a style of filmmaking akin to Michael Bay or Zack Snyder, whose allegiance to visuals over content manifests themselves as explosions and graphic novel recreations.  After watching a film like Diva one will realize that there is a considerable difference between spectacle over narrative, and spectacle over content.

Diva is an intensely beautiful film; each and every frame looks like a work of Romantic art, full of life, expression and vibrant colors.  So much of the film- the clothes, the vehicles, the buildings- is covered in primary colors.  The opening scene appropriately sets the color palette for the whole of the film, features Jules riding a yellow scooter, and wearing a red helmet and blue coat.  Furthermore, nearly every scene is lit in a way that makes these colors glow at all times.  Beineix’s use of color for the sake of spectacle is bold and unapologetic, but it is in no way sloppy or frivolous.

Beineix’s use of architecture is just as bold; virtually every setting in the film looks as though it could be an art deco exhibit.  Cinema du look often focused on sensitive, isolated youths who found their place in the underground, and Beineix’s romantic, new wave vision of the Parisian underground facilitates this overall tone perfectly.  Although the film’s underground look may appear a little too pop from time to time, it still manages to be undeniably enchanting.

Fortunately, Diva’s story does not suffer for the sake of spectacle, which may appear at odds for cinema du look’s “style over substance” philosophy.  While the film’s aesthetic beauty is the main attraction, Diva manages to display a multi-faceted and surprisingly thrilling story that justifies Beineix’s artistic preoccupations.  Granted, the transition between the first few acts are a bit abrupt, but they surprisingly come together just in time for the climax.  Beineix also does a great job casting the right actors for their respective roles; Fernandez was a real opera singer and sang her own songs in the film, and Andrei is perfect as the sweet, wide-eyed protagonist who just wants to listen to his favorite diva.  Yet it is Richard Bohringer who steals the show as the quietly eccentric Mr. Gorodish, who at times is a little too quirky (in one scene he is cooking breakfast wearing a snorkeling mask.  Just ‘cause.), but proves to be an intriguing man of action in the later half of the film.

At one point of Diva, the titular character discusses her approach to the music industry, saying, “Business should adapt to art, not the other way around.”  It is rare for a film with such reliance on the visual to also incorporate a real story.  Beneath Diva’s exterior lies a clear statement about the nature of art, and yet, though it does come close to becoming a bit silly now and then, it manages to have enough control over itself to avoid being too pretentious or involved (in other words, French).  Diva takes the Aesthetic philosophy of  “art for art’s sake” to heart by avoiding statements or preaching or politics; it is, simply, and engaging work of beauty.

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