Diva - Meridian Collection

Jesse McLean

This is a film that, despite its pleasures, is best remembered for what it inspired rather than what it accomplished.

Diva - Meridian Collection

Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix
Cast: Wilhelmenia Fernandez, Frédéric Andréi
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA rating: R
First date: 1981
US DVD Release Date: 2008-06-03

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.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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