Pretty much all I’d heard about Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva was that it took the well-known convention of French films of the time being hyper-realist and turned it completely on its head, opting instead for a film filled with color and visual aesthetic. Well, I have to admit; it was nice to see such a French film amid all the realism that followed the Nouvelle Vague. Diva ended up being pretty much what I’d heard; it emphasized style over substance, and ignored its potential flaws to focus on its perceived strengths. I don’t think it had very much of either to warrant the way the film focused itself, and it ended up somewhere in the middle for me, but it was on the good side of the meridian, so there’s that.
The titular diva is Cynthia Hawkins, a notoriously self-conscious opera singer who has never made a single recording of any of her performances. Nevertheless, the film follows Jules, who is such a massive fan of Hawkins that he manages to sneak recording equipment into one of her shows and records the entire thing, stealing one of her dresses from her room in the process. The film combines a pseudo-love story, where Jules and Cynthia end up connecting after he feels guilty and returns the dress to her, and a MacGuffin thriller, centered around a cassette tape implicating the head of police in a prostitution and human trafficking ring, which gets dropped into Jules’ postman satchel and triggers multiple parties’ attempts to track him down and recover the tape. As has become a bit of a custom lately, I’ll focus on what Diva does right first off. The visual aesthetic, which was so pronounced in the face of the realistic films made in France at the time that it sparked a new movement called “cinema du look”, was very enjoyable; the film would make very nice use of color, particularly blue, to wash the scenery and convey different moods that were necessary for each scene. It’s nothing to get up in arms over how amazing it is, but it is noticeable, and it is the main sell of the film. I also especially enjoyed the performance of Frederic Andrei as Jules, who at different times seems to be a fish out of water during the cassette tape sequences and a man with a quiet obsession in the sequences dealing with him and Cynthia. It’s a subdued performance, as it should be, but it really makes the film more than an otherwise pretty thing to look at. There’s also an excellently shot chase sequence a little over halfway through the film, one that even Roger Ebert said should be held up alongside the other great chase sequences of cinema, like Bullitt and The French Connection. Now, for what I felt didn’t work: mostly, the story. It gets the job done, but the flip-flopping between the two different story arcs wasn’t handled all that well; it felt like two different storylines smushed together into one film, instead of a marriage of the two into a single narrative. You’ll be able to get through it just fine, but there’s not a lot of worth to it, and not a lot of payoff. One last fun note: keep an eye out for frequent Jean-Pierre Jeunet collaborator Dominique Pinon as one of the two hitmen following Jules around; if you’ve seen him in any films at all, you’ll recognize him instantly.
I’m writing this paragraph a good hour after I’ve finished watching the film, and it seems to be growing in appreciation in my head. The look of the film is definitely indicative of future films that would try this style of visual aesthetic (even if they go overboard to where the film looks like it’s been doused in paint, a frequent personal complaint of mine), but it handles it much better than the ones that would follow, as would seem to always be the case. That and the chase sequence is what really made this for me. Now, that being said, if you end up not being a fan of the visual motif, this film isn’t worth the nearly two hours it is just to watch one particularly notable sequence; hell, you can find said sequence on YouTube with a cursory search if you’re that interested. It’s mainly for that reason that I decided to remain in the middle with Diva; I can see why it was added in the 10th Edition, and I might even shrug with acceptance if it sticks around, but I wouldn’t recommend this to just anyone.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10