Diva introduces us to Jules (Frederic Andrei), a young postal carrier with a passion for music. He's particularly obsessed with world famous diva Cynthia Hawkins (played with serene beauty by American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernadez). One night, the obsessed Jules makes a high quality recording of Hawkins' concert and steals one of her gowns from the dressing room. Hawkins, who has never let her voice be recorded, considers the covert recording an act of "rape."
Jules may have intended the recording as something meant strictly for his own pleasure, but he soon finds that some unscrupulous businessmen want the audio for more crass, monetary reasons. The siruation is further complicated when Jules comes to possess another valuable recording -- the taped confession of Nadia, a former call girl. Just before her murder, Nadia drops a cassette implicating a high official in a scandal, into Jules' bag.
Dominique Pinon in Diva (Rialto Pictures)
Soon a bewildered Jules finds himself pursued by an assortment of menacing characters, including an oddly intense little man who wears sunglasses and is constantly listening to polka music through his ear piece. But not everyone Jules meets is out to get him. Alba (Thuy An Luu) and Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) are a strange couple who befriend Jules and offer him help when he most needs it.
These events have the unexpected consequence of bringing bring Jules and his beloved Cynthia together. In fact, Jules sees his fantasies come true as he develops a friendship with the singer, and moves from an obsessed fan admiring her from afar to a hopeful young lover. Beineix endows his film with a sweet romanticism (something that would grow more bitter than sweet in his future films dealing with love). This delicate romance is the core of the film, with murder, betrayal and violence merely the distractions swirling around it.
Diva starts slowly with a meandering pace. Beineix initially seems too self-conscious of his technique. His camera may be a graceful, detached observer circling the characters but its movement seems unmotivated. The film seems on the verge of sacrificing everything so Beineix can show off but then something happens. Beineix's technical bravado transforms into a rapturous style that doesn't just enhance the story, it thoroughly embodies it. After some thirty minutes, Diva takes off, and Beineix turns what could have been a conventional gangster tale into an enthralling, beguiling and offbeat film.
There are sequences (such as the train station or one of the many chases) where all the elements flow together with breathtaking ease. Beineix choreographs the actors and the camera into a stunning and stylish cinematic dance. He's aided immeasurably by the editing of Marie Josephe Yoyette and Monique Prim, and the music of Vladimir Cosma. This is not a musical in the strict sense of the word but it certainly feels like one in the way it moves.
Richard Bohringer and Frederic Andrei (Rialto Pictures)
Beineix also benefits from the talents of cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot. Together they make Diva visually stunning and dynamic. The complex camera work with its repeated serpentine movements (which had initially seemed self-conscious) quickly becomes an effective means of reflecting and predicting the intricate convolutions of the plot. Individual images are also striking. Rousselot's framing often isolates and fragments objects, creating a cool, abstract beauty. Although you can admire his composition in individual shot, this does not prove to be a distraction because everything in the film flows together smoothly. Beineix and Rousselot also employ a lot of reflective surfaces to play on the idea that things are not always as they seem. Mirrors, windows and water become fascinating surfaces that reflect and fragment reality, heightening the themes of deception and ambiguity. This visual sryle perfectly suits the script by Beineix and co-writer Jean Van Hamme. They lead viewers through an intricate maze with delightful finesse.
Jules, like the audience, is always baffled and surprised by events but not Gorodish. Gorodish is like a kind of mystic who always seems to know exactly what's going on, as if he's prescient. When finally forced out of his Zen-like state, he takes clever, carefully planned action that wastes no effort and ties everything together. Gorodish reflects the film's style -- they both move with elegance, confidence and an enviable slickness.
As Gorodish, Bohringer creates a delightfully engaging character. At first his Gorodish seems silly (at one point even donning a diving mask and snorkel to cut onions) and content to stay in his meditative state of relaxation. But when prodded too act, he emerges as a coolly efficient yet enigmatic man. The rest of the cast is also superb. Andrei's Jules has a sweet-natured innocence and fitting sense of utter confusion. Fernandez gives a wonderful and intelligent performance as the diva while Thuy An Luu blends girlish charm with maturity as Alba.
Diva (rated R and in French with English subtitles) is an impressive first feature that celebrates the giddy possibilities of the medium. It blends humor, romance, menace, mystery and a sense of the surreal.
Companion viewing: Betty Blue, Delicatessen, Amelie