Two tapes, two Parisian mob killers, one corrupt policeman, an opera fan, a teenage thief, and the coolest philosopher ever filmed. All these characters twist their way through an intricate and stylish French language thriller.
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An young opera-loving mailman, Jules, becomes inadvertently entangled in murder when a young woman fleeing two mob hit men drops an incriminating cassette into his mailbag. Jules has just recently recorded opera star Cynthia Hawkins' latest concert, something of a coup as Hawkins refuses to make recordings of any kind. Soon Jules finds himself the target not only of the hit men who want the voice recording but also by those who would like to get their hands on the Hawkins recordings. Written by
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The first time I saw "Diva" I hated it so much I walked out with only 10 minutes to go because I didn't want to waste another minute of my life. I saw it again last night, years later, and for the life of me couldn't figure out why I had hated it so much.
"Diva" is a very stylish, very esoteric, very "French" film. So if any of those descriptions scare you, you might end up hating it. On the flip side, beware if you're a hardcore art film fan, because this movie is also a straightforward crime/action flick. So if the phrase "action flick" makes you cringe, you might end up hating it also. In other words, "Diva" straddles the worlds of Godard ("Contempt") and Michael Bay ("The Transformers"). And it has the potential to offend anyone who hates either extreme.
The plot, based on the 1979 novel "Diva" by Daniel Odier, is about a young moped-riding hero who finds himself in possession of two different tapes, one wanted by criminal gangsters and the other wanted by equally vicious corporate suits. The kid himself is mostly clueless, but he is taken under the wing of a mysterious millionaire who gets involved... sort of a Bruce Wayne without the Bat outfit. The "Diva" in the title is an opera singer who is played and, even more impressively, *sung* by the amazing Wilhelmenia Fernandez who in real life is known for her haunting rendition of "La Wally" as sung in this film. She is the one whose voice ends up on a bootleg tape, which is wanted by the corporate suits, who are chasing our hero, who is also running from gangsters, who want a different tape he has.
If the plot sounds tricky, perhaps comical, that's because it is. There are a lot of twists, turns, criss-crosses and surprises to keep you entertained. And while there aren't any outright punchlines and gags, there are some bits of humor and over-the-top characterizations that can only be interpreted as satirical. Example: the grumpy gangster played by the awesome Dominique Pinon whose only lines seem to be: "I hate cops", "I hate Beethoven", "I hate parking decks", and so forth (stick around til the end to find out evidently the 1 thing he likes).
But the real reason to enjoy this film is its artistic, stylish presentation. Directed by Jean-Jacques Beneix, this is perhaps his best example of a film style he practically defined in the 80s, known as "cinéma du look". This style is characterized by non-naturalistic, self-conscious aesthetics, notably intense colors and lighting effects. For example, the millionaire's loft is drenched in vivid blues. The city chase scenes seem to have an eery, artificial red/pink hue. And the Diva's rooms are a high-contrast, Kubrickian white.
Everyone in this movie is cool. Like too-cool-for-school cool. It glorifies classical music fans, gangsters, hipsters, rich folks, poor folks, Americans, Koreans, French, kleptomaniacs, prostitutes, good guys, bad guys, and everyone except that one poor slob who works at the carnival. Everyone is cool and in control.
Add to that the creative camera shots, for example lots of reflections (in the bad guys' sunglasses, or in the hubcap of a car, etc), and there you definitely have "stylish".
The music is artistic, but artistic in a very 80s sort of way (almost pop, a little bit cheezy at times but still cool). And of course Wilhelmenia's singing of the operatic piece from "La Wally" is gorgeous, and the film opens with a generous music-only scene where we can truly enjoy it.
So, upon my 2nd viewing, I recommend this film. I think the only reason why I hated it at first was because I was comparing it to Beneix's 1986 masterpiece "Betty Blue" (37°2 le matin), which digs much deeper into poetry and character development, while sacrificing the intense plot that "Diva" has.
I would compare "Diva" to the more plot-oriented films of Wim Wenders ("Faraway, So Close", "Until the End of the World", "End of Violence") and Ridley Scott of the 80s ("Black Rain", "Someone to Watch Over Me" ...incidentally Wilhelmenia Fernandez was also on the soundtrack of that one, singing "La Wally"). With "Diva"'s exaggerated colors and large sets, I might also compare it to the visual style--visuals only--of Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("City of Lost Children", "Amelie"), Tom Tykwer ("Winter Sleepers", "Run Lola Run") and the talented Japanese filmmaker Hideaki Anno ("Ritual"). There might even be a dash of Kieslowski ("The Double Life of Veronique", "Three Colors"). If you like any of the films or directors I've mentioned, you should give "Diva" a shot. And if you hate it the first time, be sure to try it again a few years later.
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