A singular achievement, then and now
By 1981, the French had been making films for nearly 100 years—France is, after all, the acknowledged birthplace of the cinema. Yet nobody had ever seen anything like Diva, the debut of director Jean-Jacques Beineix. In this fresh, modernised and determinedly bohemian Paris, postal worker Jules (Frédéric Andréi) lives in a huge loft dotted with wrecked cars and vibrant murals, dodges a pair of weird yet ruthless hit-men (Gérard Darmon and a young Dominique Pinon, the latter a later mainstay of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films) and is saved by dissolute philosopher Serge Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) following an inventive and exciting scooter chase through the Paris Metro. Yes, this wasn’t your father’s French film—yet another reason those serious about movie-going should see everything they can upon first release; a nickel for every movie influenced by Diva, itself informed by such disparate works as Francis Coppola’s One from the Heart, the later films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and music video, would fund a year’s worth of cinema tickets.
It started its own movement
Diva was the opening salvo in what became the ‘Cinéma du look’ movement of the 1980s, codified by French critic Raphaël Bassan as slickly stylish movies about disenfranchised and dissatisfied young people operating outside the norms of conventional society. The movement also values style and thrills over conventional narrative, which may explain why even though the plot of Diva is convoluted to say the least, it looks so inventive and beautiful viewers will be distracted from plot details and thus won’t care. Other practitioners of Cinéma du look included Leos Carax (Mauvais Sang, 1986; The Lovers on the Pont Neuf, 1991 – watch now at SBS On Demand) and Luc Besson (Subway, 1985; The Big Blue, 1988; Nikita, 1990 – watch now at SBS On Demand). If Besson’s name is familiar, that’s because he’s still prolific today as producer of the Taken franchise, director of Lucy and producer of the upcoming Transporter Refueled (a reboot of the series he wrote and produced originally). Arguably, Diva has aged much better than most of these.
Diva will make you fall in love with opera
The object of Jules’ awe-struck desire is Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhemenia Wiggins Fernandez), a famous opera singer who refuses to be recorded. A real-life soprano, Fernandez was born in Philadelphia, and her appearance here catapulted her into a new realm of stardom. The opera recording Jules has on one of the contested cassettes is the hauntingly beautiful 'La Wally,' composed in 1892 by Italian Alfredo Catalani. The aria sung by Fernandez, which once heard cannot be forgotten, is 'Ebben? Ne andrò lontana,' which translates as “Well, then? I’ll go far away.” The irony, of course, is that the players in Diva don’t go far at all, expressing their individuality and dissatisfaction by creating a world of their own on the margins. The opera is rarely performed in its entirety, as it requires its heroine to fling herself into an avalanche at the end. Catalani died of tuberculosis the year after 'La Wally' premiered, and Diva, amongst its many other accomplishments, aided enormously in returning his work from obscurity.
Watch Diva in full below or at SBS On Demand: