Monday, November 5, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #204 - Diva (1981, dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix)

 About two thirds of the way through Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 film Diva, our hero, Jules, is being chased through a Paris Metro station on his moped by a police officer. He’s wearing all red, tabla music is fading in and out, and the shifting camera angles constantly break the 180-degree rule. It’s a disorienting, beautiful sequence, one that seems so preoccupied with creating a feeling of psychedelia out of context that it prompts the viewer to forget that it makes sense narratively. Depending on your point of view, that’s a critique that could be levied at the rest of the film, too; but the magic of Diva is that it does work in spite of all its massively disparate impulses, plot threads, and philosophical interests.
            At its core, Diva is obsessed with Walter Benjamin’s conception of the “aura”; an individual piece of art, Benjamin says, has a particular aura that one can only truly understand when viewing the original. This posed a problem when art – namely, music and film – was being reproduced on a mass scale. Auras can’t necessarily be replicated, Benjamin says. Cynthia Hawkins, the American opera singer unknowingly involved in Diva’s crime narrative, is aware of that. She stalwartly refuses to record her performances, saying that the beauty of an opera performance is in the collaboration between singer, symphony, and audience on any given night. When Cynthia’s performance in Paris is expertly bootlegged by Jules, a series of events is set in motion that soon embroils her, Jules, the chief of police, some Taiwanese gangsters, and two young bohemians in a thriller more interested in discussing the role of art than delivering high-octane delights.
            Unsurprisingly, then, Diva is just plain beautiful to look at. Shot compositions are painterly, and Beineix’s emphatic use of color throughout the film offers impressionistic sequences that make the viewer feel like they’ve been stuck in a museum for far longer than they’d intended. In a quiet moment halfway through the film, Jules courts Cynthia as they walk through the Tuileries Gardens outside the Louvre. In one of my favorite shots of the film, Jules and Cynthia sit facing away from one another, on different sides of the frame. Jules moves closer to her, transgressing the boundary that divides them, and she smiles. Cynthia, the eponymous diva, is initially reluctant to engage with Jules, a lowly postman, but is so persuaded by his charms that she can’t resist. It’s a beautiful sequence that manages to offer narrative development while highlighting the philosophical interests at the heart of the film.
            I find it hard not to read too deeply into this postmodern dichotomy on display both here and in other threads throughout the film. Jules, the young French sophist bootlegger, courts Cynthia, an American classicist. The police are chasing after a tape that ultimately indicts their chief, but that tape gets confused with the bootlegged recording. The film cleverly – and constantly! – tricks the audience into thinking they’re hearing the commentative, diegetic score to the film, only to pull the rug out from under the viewer and make it clear that the characters are hearing the same noise. Worth noting, too, is how the film’s score expertly blends opera, classical, tabla, and cornball ‘80s synth into one amazing soundtrack. Likewise, the abundant references to both the French New Wave and Hollywood low-brow films that are peppered throughout neutralizes critical discourse in a way that postmodernists will surely love. Its influences all over the place, but Beineix combines them into a singular vision.
             Amid all the philosophical treatises and dissertations in Diva, the film never gets too heady and still manages to deliver a solid caper. There are twists and narrative contrivances aplenty, and there’s a certain, undefinable quality to the characters that makes them just eminently watchable, even if some of the characterization leaves the viewer wanting. Diva marked the beginning of a new micromovement in French filmmaking – the “Cinema du Look” – which is often criticized for being a movement more focused on delivering style before substance. I struggle to see how that critique applies to Diva; this is a film that is rich with thematic interest, impressively timely sociopolitical discourse, and bundles of style. It’s got an aura all its own.
-          Harry Todd

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