Wednesday 1 November 2023

Diva (1981)


I watched “Diva” yesterday and have since spent quite a few hours trying to work out this movie. The narrative is complicated, but at the same time ridiculously simple and I understand most of it well. What baffles me is how all those threads and components actually mesh into a coherent movie. The short answer is that they do not, which may actually be the point.

The central character of this movie is Jules (Frédéric Andréi). He is a young postman who lives in a workshop of sorts. Here he has built a temple for opera music with all sorts of technical equipment, especially for the soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhemenia Fernandez) with whom he is completely infatuated. One night at the opera he clandestinely records her performance (and steals her dress). This is significant in two ways: Hawkins has never allowed any recordings to be made of her, making Jules’ recording the only one in existence and, secondly, sitting right behind Jules, two Taiwanese music pirates notice the recording and now they want it.

A second storyline concerns a gangster ring dealing in trafficking and drugs. One of the prostitutes has a recording incriminating the ringleader and she is killed just after dumping her tape into Jules’ postbag. The twist here is that the boss of the policemen investigating the gangster ring and the ringleader is the same person. Not really a spoiler, we learn that early on.

Jules is now hunted by three parties: The Taiwanese for the opera tape, the police for being a witness to the murder of the prostitute and two gangsters, known as “The West Indian” and “The Priest” (Gérard Darmon and Dominique Pinon), for the incriminating tape. Fortunately, Jules receives help from a very odd couple, the wealthy and eccentric Serge Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) and his girlfriend, Alba (Thuy An Luu).

Frankly, this is a mishmash. There is the odd love story between Jules and Cynthia, the weird but terribly clever Gorodish and the three chase groups. There seems to be a social critique of corrupt authorities, a praise of pure art and a big nod towards film noir. As a crime thriller it is almost a joke as the big reveal comes very early (the identity of the kingpin) and the chases are almost comical or at least stylized with Gorodish outsmarting everybody James Bond style. The point, I suppose, is to not be so focused on the narrative, but the appearance of the movie.

This is indeed what this movie is famous for and the alleged reason for including it on the List. It has been celebrated as the movie that started the “Cinéma du look” genre, which is supposed to emphasize style to content. This I understand means to look terribly cool without too much concern for what is actually going on. If that is indeed so, it would explain a lot in the movie. It is both a visual and audio feast. Everything looks and sounds spectacular. The workshop Jules lives in, the apartment (and the lighthouse) of Gorodish, the chase scenes and so on. Both the Taiwanese in their sunglasses and the gangsters look awesome. I bet Travolta and Jackson in “Pulp Fiction” were referencing Pinon and Darmon. On the audio side, we get to hear a lot of opera and in a good way (opera can be unpleasant, but not here) and when it is not opera, the music is either sorrowful and pretty or high-speed cliché action movie tracks. Everything for the senses is loaded high.

As a viewer, this is a bit challenging. You want to go for the narrative and there is enough narrative that you do follow it. It is not obscure as Godard would have done it, but then you are thrown off by the odd set of pieces it consists of. It seems to me that the way to watch it is to step back and enjoy the elements rather than the narrative. Tarantino made this his trademark, but a decade before “Reservoir Dogs”, this style was already practiced in France. In that light, “Diva” gains a lot more value and meaning. It almost begs a repeat viewing, wearing those glasses.

“Diva” has allegedly become a cult classic, and I can see why. At first, I was ready to dismiss it, but the more I consider it, the better I like it, so I guess that makes it a recommendation from me.



  1. We'll disagree on this one. I hated this for all of the pretentiousness that it contained. It felt like fake cool to me, like someone trying too hard to be one of the cool kids and failing badly.

    1. I actually agree with you that the narrative is close, if not in fact, ridiculous, but my guess is that we are supposed to ignore that and instead look at all the exaggerated form. It is pretentious but also quite playful and that is fun.