[3 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Don’t let anyone tell you differently - cinema is cyclical. Ever since the initial barrage of old school Hollywood studio glitter, films (and their maverick makers) have been finding a way to rebel, and then revolt against said aesthetic uprising over and over again. Fantasy like fiction gave way to neo-realism, while the old techniques of static shots and journeymen direction mandated a whole ‘New Wave’ of experimentation. All throughout the ‘70s, French filmmaking was going through its own post-modern movement. Movies focused on the problems of real people, presented in a manner that accurately - and often uncomfortably - mimicked life.
In 1981, first time filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix decided to radicalize his approach to the medium. Drawing on deliberate artificiality - and a novel by Daniel Odier (under the pseudonym Delacorta - Diva was the result. It gained instant worldwide acclaim, and even managed to become a certified cult hit in America. It announced a new approach in French cinema, labeled Cinema du look, and introduced the talents of Beineix, Luc Besson, and Leos Carax. While some saw a thread of political relevance inside the style - the subject matter usually centered on the disillusioned youth of the era - many felt this new form was more flash than finesse.
Oddly enough, it was a similar argument used against the burgeoning US independents of the mid ‘90s. Wunderkind directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky were considered brilliant visionaries whose efforts carried a gloss of uneasy emotional detachment - again, all technique and no import. Yet their influence guided cinema for the next decade, swaying many who felt that film needed a swift kick in the creativity to remain vital. After getting his start in the art video circuit, Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard applied his passion for classical music toward an intriguing biography of a legendary pianist. His 1993 opus 32 Short Films About Glen Gould brought instant notoriety, its unusual conceit reflecting this newfound desire to reinvent the form of cinema. Five year later, critics would complain about his vignette heavy time trip, The Red Violin.
Thanks to Lionsgate, who is introducing a new line of important DVDs under the “Meridian Collection” tag, we get a chance to revisit both films to see if their particular era-oriented vision still holds up over the decades. In the case of Beineix, Diva still derives a great deal of its pizzazz out of elements that now seem sort of dated. When one thinks about camera trickery and directorial flare, a film like this instantly comes to mind. On the other hand, The Red Violin is like a lush lesson in ephemeral emptiness. There are times when the movie seems so lightweight and puffy that you wait for it to simply vanish into the ether and disappear from the screen. This does not mean they are bad films - far from it. But in a format friendly dynamic that gives even the most unsung work a chance to shine, both Diva and The Red Violin have been bypassed by other, more daring deconstructions.
As a starting point for all this filmic flare, Diva has one of the more straightforward stories. A young mail courier named Jules (Frédéric Andréi) enjoys his pseudo-slacker life on the fringes. He particularly loves opera, and the vocal work of American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). So taken is he with the ‘diva’, that he makes an illegal recording of a recent recital. Somehow, his tape gets mixed up with that of a recent police sting, and the mobsters at the center want all evidence eliminated - including Jules. Thus begins an extended chase with both police and criminals after our hapless hero.
The Red Violin, on the other hand, takes the Glenn Gould approach to narrative, using the title instrument as a thread linking several divergent storylines. When a rare example of a ‘Bussotti’ is auctioned off, flashbacks fill in the gaps in the item’s history. We see the creator perfecting his creation, watch as it finds its way into the hands of a child prodigy, and witness its part in China’s Cultural Revolution. In between, there are stop offs with noblemen, nonentities, and a particularly intense historian (Samuel L. Jackson). Not surprisingly, the delicate object has one final secret to reveal.
One of the great things about the digital format remains the ability for filmmakers to defend their work. Sometimes, the most difficult offerings have the easiest of explanations. That is clearly the case with both Diva and The Red Violin. On the Lionsgate DVDs, both Jean-Jacques Beineix (in a scene specific overview) and Francois Girard (a full length discussion with co-writer Don McKellar) are present to contextualize their craft. Of the two, the latter is far more informative. Beineix is all shot selection and memories, not so much a defense of his highly ostentatious outing as it is a primer of possibilities. Girard is more forgiving. He underscores his motives, making sure listeners understand the allusions and mythos he was employing.
Even better, we get added material that makes both films feel less calculated and more manageable. Beineix’s baby draws on a wonderful documentary revisit entitled “Searching for Diva”. In it, cast and crew expand our knowledge of the movie while making clear how much of the style was purposefully premeditated. Violin relies on more indirect guidance. One short piece outlines the auction of a rare “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivari (clearly an inspiration for the film), while another allows the Oscar winning composer of the sensational score - John Corigliano - to discuss the movie’s main theme. Certainly, obsessives will wonder why there isn’t more material here. Yet Lionsgate gives each disc just enough heft to warrant a reissue. Besides, the newly remastered transfers look terrific.
This doesn’t address each movie from a critical standpoint, however, and this is where both Diva and The Red Violin suffer, if ever so slightly. For the earlier effort, the passage of almost three decades has been almost deadly. What was fresh and reinvigorating then is now harshly kitschy and borderline camp. This doesn’t take away from Beineix’s way with an action scene - the motorcycle chase through the Paris streets is still exciting, it’s jump cut skill reinvigorating the then dying action element. Yet some of the moments where characters mope about in pre-Goth gloom, or worse, run around like refugees from a camp revival of A Clockwork Orange, come across as cheesy as an Adam Ant video. Diva still delivers a great deal of pleasure within its now noticeable knottiness, and the performances are excellent and quite accomplished. Yet this is the kind of experience that makes one wonder how current cinematic turning points (CGI, the ‘found footage’ first person POV genre jolts) will play 30 years from now.
If The Red Violin is any indication, style doesn’t always need substance to succeed. In fact, sumptuousness can trump depth with a carefully constructed composition. The broad scope of Girard’s canvas - he moves through the centuries as effortlessly as a virtuoso’s fingers along the frets - definitely allows for a more hit or miss approach, but here the director delivers more times than he fails. The material centering on the child prodigy is highly engaging, as are the moments in Communist China. Jackson’s story may seem the weakest, but watching the actor outside his element (we keep waiting for him to break out into a string of venomous epithets) and underplaying his part is highly entertaining. There are those who’ve complained that Violin violates the whole ‘image over import’ ideal. Sadly, they seem to be missing many of the movie’s more noticeable attributes.
Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss either film for what it offers visually vs. how it plays as a thriller or a detailed drama. Diva can never shake its Cinema du look logistics, but ignoring the calculated bells and whistles, it is still a satisfying experience. So what if The Red Violin appears deeper, and less deliberate. There is still enough visual privilege to make those inclined to criticize apoplectic. Just remember that this is all part of film’s recurring reboot and all your concerns will be calmed. Diva and The Red Violin definitely deserve continued recognition, and Lionsgate Meridian Collection is a perfect way of preserving them for future debate/consideration. And there will be a great deal of both.