'Diva' Ushered In A New Look For French Cinema
Opera takes center stage in the film “Diva,” which is now on Blu-ray this month in a new reissue from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
“Diva” opens in the concert hall, as a young Parisian postman (Frédéric Andréi), settles in for a concert by an American soprano, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). She has never allowed herself to be recorded, believing that true art must be experienced firsthand. "Business should adapt to art, not the other way around," she explains. But Jules manages to sneak in a tape recorder and capture her singing the beautiful aria “Ebben? Ne andro lontana” from Alfredo Catalani’s “La Wally.”
Later on the street, Jules comes into the possession of a second recording, containing incriminating testimony that exposes a top cop of being the head of a drug and prostitution ring. The movie turns into an elaborate thriller with three parties chasing after Jules and the tapes—the cops, the bad guys, and two Taiwanese businessmen who want to blackmail the opera singer into releasing an album on their record label. A spectacular chase on a moped in the Paris underground metro is at the center of the movie.
“Diva” was an early example of a new trend in French cinema of the 1980s, called “Cinema du Look.” The stylishly designed films fit hand-in-glove with the burgeoning MTV generation; the blue-tinted sheen of one character’s lair in "Diva" adds to the aura of coolness throughout. This is a movie that seemingly doesn’t have much going on under the surface; but look closer and there are racial dynamics at play; consider that Hawkins, the diva, is black, and her voice is being stolen by a white. Odd that the two leads form a tentative friendship, non?
The new Blu-ray of “Diva” features a splendid commentary track featuring critic Simon Abrams that goes into the film’s themes, but also into the history of the film itself, and contemporary reactions of the time. Also on the disc are loads of interviews with the award winning cinematographer and set designer, as well as the director, Jean-Jacques Beneix, and the film’s composer, Vladimir Cosima, who subtly reworks Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedies” on the soundtrack. Music that, like “Diva” itself, is both complex and simple at once, and rewards repeat experiences.