April is French Film Month!

Diva (1982)

My Rating:

A pretty good film about a lot of different things, with good music.

Bitable Bytes:
"...Work of Genius...!"
"Refreshingly Divergent!"
"Exciting and Engrossing!"

What to do while watching:
The story was strange and puzzling enough to engulf me completely. I had little attention for anything else.

What to eat while watching:
Sip a good French wine.

I recall hearing about this film about the time it came out, but not being old enough to truck myself off to the local art cinema, I never saw it. The Family Twin only showed second-run mainstream cinema. I remember seeing Ringo Starr in Caveman there--twice. Not because it was any work of genius (though it had it's own charm), but just because I had two friends who wanted to see it with me, and they didn't get along with each other.

I wish I had seen Diva, though. The young man in the film, a delivery boy named Jules, lives such a rich life compared to the one I was living back then with my small world of junior high school, home and the few hang-outs I frequented. Jules is an audiophile hobbyist who has quite a talent for recording and a strong love of music. The film starts with him creating an excellent but illegal bootleg of a live performance by the titular (and titillating) diva, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez). Had I known that a man only a few years older than I could be an opera buff, an amateur recording engineer and an adventurous delivery boy all at once, I might have charted a life-course for the wilder unknown much sooner than I eventually did.

In the movie, Jules slips backstage to meet the diva after the show, but he manages only a brief word before more admirers sweep her away. In a mad impulse, Jules nicks the diva's dress on his way out. This leads to headlines in the next day's paper: "Who Stole the Diva's Dress?" It's an amusing turn of events, but turns out to be a low-stakes conflict compared to what will come. These headlines set the tenor for even more far-fetched things to happen to Jules and his friends.

I've spoken this month about verisimilitude--the close resemblance of art to true life--that a lot of French film strives for. This film is refreshingly divergent from the trend noted in The Umbellas of Cherbourg (1962) and The Taste of Others (2001). In Diva, a film that falls smack between these two chronologically, art does not reflect life so faithfully, not for a United States youth and probably not for a French youth, either. After stealing the diva's dress, Jules has a chance encounter with a woman who is being chased by secret police. She possesses a tape recording that proves a certain public official's criminal ties. She secretes the tape in Jules' saddle bags and thereby involves him with this espionage plot. The action is exciting and engrossing, and makes this film an escape from the humdrum of real life.

Meanwhile, some ruthless recording studio agents have found out about Jules' priceless bootleg, and they are willing to pay big bucks--or kill--to obtain publishing rights. Jules, pursued both by the secret police and by the homicidal bootleggers, becomes a kid on the lam, unable to return to his own home for days. He has two allies, though. One is a spunky, young woman with whom Jules shares a subtle and unrequited sexual tension. The other is this woman's older male friend who seems to have adopted her as some inexplicable combination of daughter and girlfriend. The relationship is quite unclear, as are the relationships among him, her, and Jules. Maybe it's too French for me to understand.

Anyway, this dude is very wealthy, smooth and powerful, as is the diva. With these two characters as beacons in the storm, the plot takes Jules into sticky complications and pulls him out again with extreme facility. The corrupt government officials seem insurmountably powerful until Mr. Weird Whiteknight steps in with his infinite resource and finesse. The sunglasses-wearing bootleggers destroy Jules' apartment and threaten to do much worse until the diva steps in like Athena on the battlefield to give him succor.

Deus ex machina, "god in the machine," is a term that comes to mind here. The story happens to Jules and he has no control over it. His adoration of music and his mischief are tiny compared to the huge forces that throw him into chaos then safety, doom then salvation.

But the film is quite lovely to watch and to listen to. The music itself may be worth the entire viewing experience for opera buffs, even though its connection to the larger plot is ephemeral at best. And I confess a predisposition to foreign films because they permit a sort of traveling tour with minimal expense and risk. One gets a slice of another culture, albeit filtered through the deceptions of cinema.

Finally though, I had a similar reaction to this film as I had to many United States films, namely, why? Why did the opera singer story have to be tied to a cops-and-robbers story? Why did the love story between opera fan and opera star need to be tricked out with shoot-outs and car chases? Did director Jean-Jacques Beineix feel that nobody would watch his film unless there were some whammies? Such a conception seems unfit anywhere but Hollywood, and even there it's a shameful habit, pardon my saying so.

Still in all, the film is entertaining. I enjoyed the twists and turns, the strange characterizations, and the delightful look of the film. So far, though, I think Umbrellas of Cherbourg is my favorite this month for originality, humanity, and indeed, music.

Want to share a happy story with Gooden?

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For your collection: Diva (VHS), Diva (DiVa-D -- Incidentally, I couldn't help but notice that reviewers at Amazon.com are quite thrilled with the enhancements in quality offered on the DVD version.)

Gooden's listening to: Splatter Trio's Hi-Fi Junk Note Free jazz: Some people argue it's worth every penny. Some people consider it the opposite of "easy listening." But listening to Splatter Trio is like listening to a spoken-word CD that's delivered with sounds instead of words. It takes some focus to hear the preterverbal dialogue (if you will) that takes place between percussionist Gino Robair, guitarist Myles Boisen (both musicians on Tom Waits' two, soon-to-released records) and Dave Barrett. No, it's not easy listening, but it is an uncompromised example of the form.

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