My piece on Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 Diva is up on Turner Classic Movies online.
It’s hard to believe that Diva, the ultra-stylish, unimaginably influential, pop-chic feature debut of director Jean-Jacques Beineix, was a theatrical flop when it was first unleashed on unsuspecting French audiences in 1982. French critics dismissed the film, a colorful crime fantasy about an opera-mad mail carrier who lands in the center of an international criminal conspiracy, as shallow and slick and audiences steered clear from its opening weekend. It was festival showings and, ironically, its American release that boosted its profile. Excited reviews extolled the cool attitude, vibrant color and hip style and helped turn the film into an art-house phenomenon as young European audiences slowly discovered the sleek lark of a thriller, transforming it into a cult film and, finally, a commercial and critical hit.
Frédéric Andréi stars as Jules, a young, moped-riding postman and music maven who is obsessed with opera diva Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), an artist who refuses to be recorded. She believes that the live connection between the her and the audience is an essential element of her art. The film opens with Jules arriving at her concert and then surreptitiously recording her, a pirate recording for a private audience that goes unnoticed by all but a pair of mysterious men also in the audience. Beineix builds the scene in complicated cross-cutting that transforms a concert into a web of surveillance: not all eyes are on Hawkins. The next day, while on his delivery rounds, another hot recording lands in his lap (or, more accurately, his moped saddlebags), this one a cassette with explosive evidence in the investigation of an international heroine and prostitution ring. Jules is the target of mob hitmen who want the evidence and ruthless recording executives who want the concert, but a chance meeting with a teenage Vietnamese shoplifter (Thuy An Luu) brings Jules to Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), a shadowy knight errant who (for reasons not explained in the film) becomes Jules’ guardian angel. It’s a deadly game of who’s got the tape – and which tape do they have – in a narrative built on matched pairs and reflections: two good cops and two bad cops, two mob assassins and two music industry henchmen, two tapes, two conspiracies, and a criminal kingpin with a double life. “The whole film is a game of duality,” says Beineix, but he’s deft enough not to belabor the doublings, merely to use them as the foundation on which he builds his plot and tells his story.
The open, boyish face of actor Andréi evokes young Jean-Pierre Leaud and helps turn Jules into a modern twist on the sixties new wave hero, a free-wheeling innocent defined by unabashed enthusiasm and passion and a misguided romantic tarnished by his youthful arrogance. Not merely illegal, his pirate recording is a moral crime against Hawkins (she equates it with rape) with potentially devastating consequences. “Diva is a movie about technology, and technology versus artists,” Beineix explains in a 2008 interview. “If I had to keep one phrase from the film, it’s when the Diva says, ‘It is up to business to adapt to art and not to art to adapt to business.’ I know it’s very naïve but I still believe in it.”
Read the entire article here.