Watching Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva, it’s difficult not to think of other movies. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, this French thriller from 1981 is a movie about watching movies. It also shares with films that followed an aggressive stylized esthetic, such as Luc Besson’s Subway, and a cocked take on genre, such as Hal Hartley’s Amateur, described by the director as “an action film with one flat tire”.
Despite these direct predecessors and antecedents, the words of police blotter realist Sidney Lumet loomed large in my mind while watching Beineix’s film for the first time. He once noted that in drama the story arises out of the character, while in melodrama the characters are byproducts of the story. What is impressive with Diva is the integrity given its characters, an unwillingness to bend character to fit the arcs of genre architecture. What is disappointing with Diva is a lack of dramatic or melodramatic satisfaction. Beineix and company labour hard to serve both masters, but instead please neither. Rather than the hoped for champagne cocktail, we get a can of soda gone flat.
If one allows seduction into this world, a cinema-informed diegesis Beineix creates where real-world common sense is disavowed, the flat soda provides sweet rewards. Jules (Frederic Andrei) is a moped-driving postman in Paris who loves opera and one diva in particular, Cynthia Hawkins (American soprano Wihlemenia Wiggins Fernandez), a celebrated performer who refuses to allow her performances to be recorded. Jules smuggles a Nagra into the concert hall and records a performance of Catalini’s La Wally for his own enjoyment.
This triggers his involvement in a complex plot, wherein he finds himself the target of Taiwanese bootleggers anxious to locate this pristine recording. Jules also has the misfortune of finding another recording dropped into his mail pouch, a statement from a call girl detailing the specifics of a prostitution ring. This places Jules in the cross hairs of two hired thugs (Dominique Pinon and Patrick Florsheim) and a corrupt cop (Jacques Fabbri).
Beineix’s treatment of Jules embodies his commitment to character. While believable as a lovesick young man, Jules fits the genre role of an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances. Alas, his pluck and audacity carry him, and the plot, only so far.
When trouble turns violent, he is out of his league. Luckily, he befriends Alba (Thuy An Luu), a waifish shoplifter who in turn introduces Jules to her benefactor, the mysterious Gorodish (Richard Bohringer). A man of means and wisdom, Gorodish shoulders the narrative weight when Jules isn’t up to the task.
While Beineix delights in character integrity, he also believes in the transformative power of the implausible. The ignition of love between opera star Hawkins and fanboy Jules strains the willing suspension of disbelief more than any of the genre conventions Beineix alternately reinvents and mimics (from the much-celebrated moped chase through the Paris Metro to a climax that involves gunpoint confessions and, God help us, an open elevator shaft!). That a gawky, mildly creepy fanatic might slip through the looking glass into the willing arms of his idol could have derailed the story, yet Beineix conveys the burgeoning relationship with such tender care for both characters that one can’t help but fall in love along with them.
The ultimate trouble is the responsibility of satisfying genre expectations. My shopworn examples for good and bad examples of genre films with high aims are Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and William Friedkin’s Cruising. The former succeeds not only as a rousing action film, it also scores as deft social satire; the latter not only fails as an investigation into a shadowy sub-culture (providing as many unintended laughs as the first 15-minutes of Gasper Noe’s Irreversible), but cheats the audience on the procedural/mystery aspect of the story.
So, too, does Beineix grapple with divergent impulses. In the end, characters are given less room to breathe as the narrative demands completion. And after the story lurches to a sluggish, hackneyed conclusion, it is almost redeemed by a final scene between the postman and the soprano – a scene as improbable as their connection but as lovely and fragile as the courtship that precedes it.
What remains is an enigma, as curious as the dues ex machine Gorodish himself; an influential film better known for its influence on a gleaming mise en scene that marked the ‘80s than for its own virtues; a sleek melodramatic body driven by an arrhythmic dramatic heart; a love letter to cinema that flouts its laws and dares to disappoint. A movie that makes one pine for other movies.