Eternity of Dream note: Before we admire the final Paris in Genres post, let's start it off by reading a wonderful piece about a French cinema gem, kindly contributed by the very talented and dedicated Marcelline Block, who has Paris in film at her fingertips and who you would like to see among your film connoisseur friends and conversationalists. Thank you very much, Marcelline, for your outstanding contribution!
June 30, 2012
Paris in Genres
“Arthouse Thriller” Recommendation: Diva (1981), by Jean-Jacques Beineix
By Marcelline Block, editor of World Film Locations: Paris (http://www.amazon.com/World-Film-Locations-Paris-Intellect/dp/1841505617) and host of Twitter’s Movie Talk on Sunday, “Paris in Film” (http://www.shewrites.com/profiles/blogs/movie-talk-on-sunday-sunday-june-10th-2012).
Final version, June 30, 2012, 6:15 pm (EST)
© Marcelline Block, all rights reserved
Jean-Jacques Beineix’s oeuvre includes several of the major works of the 1980s French cinema movement dubbed the “Cinéma du Look”: defined by Ginette Vincendeau as “youth-oriented films with high production values…The ‘look’ of the cinéma du look refers to the films’ high investment in non-naturalistic, self-conscious aesthetics, notably intense colours and lighting effects” (Vincendeau 1996, 50). Appearing before his monumental 37°2 le matin/Betty Blue (1986), Beineix’s 1981 Diva (adapted from Daniel Odier’s novel) inaugurated him as an auteur of complex, lengthy narratives with striking visuals that form his trademark aesthetic and mise-en-scène. Central to Beineix’s films is the intersection of romantic relationships—happy or not—and creative endeavor, such as that of the aspiring author Zorg (Jean-Hughes Anglade) and his ultimately tragic love for Betty (Beatrice Dalle) in Betty Blue or Jules’ (Frédéric Andrei) obsessive passion for an American opera icon, Cynthia Hawkins (played by real life opera singer Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez), the titular “Diva” of Beineix’s first feature film, which won the César for Best Debut. In Diva, Hawkins’ refusal to record her singing—the cornerstone of her philosophy as an artist—propels the narrative’s unfolding. Likening bootleg recordings of her performances as a violation of her artistic integrity, she describes the concert as a privileged moment between artist and public, declaring that “music, it comes and goes; don’t try to keep it,” thus somewhat evoking Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” (1935).
Diva brings together numerous narrative threads, set against the backdrop of Paris. Young postman Jules—whose infatuation with Hawkins leads him to secretly record her latest performance—becomes unwittingly involved in a criminal plot after he accidentally obtains the audiotape of a dead woman testifying against a drug smuggling and human trafficking ring. Jules’ possession of these two tapes, the illegal recording of the Diva singing the famed aria “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (“Well, then? I’ll go far away”) from Alfredo Catalani’s opera La Wally (1892)—an electrifying performance by Hawkins/Fernandez that opens and closes the film, and which is featured throughout as a leitmotif—and the testimony of Nadia Kalinski (Chantal Deruaz), victim of the trafficking ring, nearly costs him his life. On moped, Jules flees the various figures chasing him throughout Paris: hired assassins; the police, and two businessmen seeking to steal his recording of Hawkins in order to market it, since it is the only such recording in the whole world. The corrupt chief of police implicated in the drug smuggling/human trafficking ring crosses paths with naive Jules, who, smitten with Hawkins, steals her voice (as well as the shimmering evening gown she wore during her performance). The consequences are explosive.
Paris plays host to Diva. The city’s culturescape and artistic glory, particularly in the realm of music—the opulence and grandeur of its operatic tradition—is constantly on display. So too is the city’s legendary romantic appeal and potential: one of the film’s most unforgettable sequences is that of Jules and Cynthia strolling through the city’s nearly empty streets, awash in the misty blue pre-dawn light, as Jules holds aloft an umbrella to shield Cynthia from Paris’ iconic rain. Set to the extradiegetic music of Vladimir Cosma’s pastiche of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, Jules and Cynthia encounter Parisian landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe during their late night/early morning perambulation, which culminates under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The moody, hushed, and melancholy atmosphere of this musical interlude—collapsing Paris’ legacies of beauty, music, love, and historic monuments into a romantic fantasy—does not serve, however, to fully negate the city’s grittiness nor the horrific reality of sordid undercurrents of crime also at work in Diva. Along with the traffickers’ thugs who brazenly execute their targeted victims in public places in daylight—such as at the Gare Saint-Lazare—the police pursue Jules throughout Paris’ streets and metro (Jules on his moped; a police officer on foot), a chase which ends up at the Opera stop, thus overdetermining Diva’s twinned preoccupations with music and crime, two elements integral not only to the film’s diegesis but also to the city itself.
Diva’s intoxicating soundtrack includes Fernandez’s rendition of the haunting aria from “La Wally.” The film’s visuals and scenes are dream-like, replete with eccentric characters (such as actor Richard Bohringer in his starmaking turn as the enigmatic hero Gorodish and Dominique Pinon as the nonchalant henchman called “The Priest” who flatly proclaims his dislike of everything) as well as surreal situations which are then contrasted with authentic observations of quotidian Parisian life in the early 80s: clichés such as Frenchmen wearing berets and the daily breakfast ritual of eating a baguette with jam. Starting with an opera enthusiast’s stolen recording of a Diva’s voice, the film progresses along an uncharted and unexpected course, navigating enmeshed diegetic strands about hired assassins, international gangsters, opera lovers, and Zen philosophers. Yet at its core is Paris, the City of Light, the City of Love; Paris in 1981, long before the digital era, when sound and voices were still recorded on audiocassettes, when music was still preserved on vinyl records. Perhaps the film is a nostalgic throwback to a not-too-distant past that pre-dates the digital “revolution” in music and filmmaking—although the film’s harsh view of music pirating resonates with a 21st century audience—but Diva never ceases to amaze, captivate, and haunt the imaginations of its viewers. The further one moves away from the time of its creation in the early 80s to the current perspective of the second decade of the 21st century, Diva, a cult film for many, takes its place among the best exemplars of the French seventh art; as its temporal context recedes further into the distance, the film grows more relevant still and intrigues more generations of cinema viewers. Truly Diva is in a category of its own.
Vincendeau, Ginette. 1996. The Companion to French Cinema. London: Cassell and BFI.
Written by Marcelline Block
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