Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Favorite Film: DIVA (1981) starring Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Frederic Andrei and Richard Bohringer.

Still having to get into my blog through a back door, but at least I'm able to post and respond to comments. Can't complain TOO much. Though I wish Google Blogger would fix whatever it is that continues to ail them.  Still having problems posting on some other rhyme or reason.

It feels as it we haven't talked movies in ages - but maybe that's just me. Today it's all about one of my absolute favorite films of all time. If anyone ever says to me: name a favorite movie,  DIVA is the one (along with three or four others) which immediately springs to mind. It is an unforgettable film - a film that dazzled me with it's visual brilliance and wicked story-telling. Far as I'm concerned there's never been anything quite like it.

DIVA is a crime thriller/love story about, among other things, the inchoate power of music. It is peopled with a cast of eccentrics - good guys and bad - set in a down to earth Paris location that still manages to retain its aura of mystery. The film is directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix - a movie-maker to whom extravagant visuals must be life's blood.

The basic story is all about this: A love-lorn postman, an opera diva, two recording tapes, two nasty mob killers, one corrupt policeman, two inept police detectives, two sinister Taiwanese record pirates and one very cool philosopher (owner of the most gorgeous Citroen automobile I've ever seen) who steps in to save the day. (I took the internet movie database's rather spare description and enhanced it.) The movie is a twisting, winding, intricate thriller that is actually three separate skeins woven into one and if you don't pay attention you'll easily miss something important.

DIVA, first and foremost, is obviously the creation of someone who adores the art of film - I don't know much about the director, Jean Jacques Beineix, he doesn't seem to have made many more films, but the visualization, art direction and action sequences in DIVA prove his adoration of the medium. The film is a curious combo of pop art, graphic comic action and film noir done in bright, often flat, comic book colors.

Frederic Andrei (my keyboard doesn't do accents) plays the young, hapless, love-lorn postman, Jules, who not-so-innocently gets tangled up in a web of murder and deceit, not to mention an on-going police investigation of a Parisienne prostitution king-pin. As the film opens, Jules is at an opera recital featuring the famed and very beautiful American soprano, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). He is utterly smitten with her and her exquisite voice and has, this night, smuggled in a device to record her aria as he sits in the audience - totally reprehensible and illegal - but understandable.

Hawkins has never recorded, never made any records or performance tapes - never heard herself sing on tape. She doesn't believe in it. She is eccentric enough to prefer only the 'live' experiencing of performance and defends this quirk to her agent, her public and anyone else who wishes it were otherwise. Only a real and beloved diva could get away with this sort of thing.

In the audience the night of the Paris recital, sitting near Jules, are two Taiwanese men (made sinister in appearance by their wearing of sunglasses in the darkened audience) who notice what Jules is up to. We immediately surmise that they are interested in the recording and a light bulb goes off in our heads - record pirates! The aria that Hawkins is singing that night is: La Wally from the opera by Catalani written in 1892. It is exquisite. You can see on Jules's face, how transformed he becomes, how drawn in he is by Hawkins' beauty and the sound of her alluring voice. He doesn't notice that two sinister men in sunglasses are watching him intently. After the recital, he goes backstage and chats briefly with the diva, as he leaves, he steals the dress she wore that evening while performing.

The headlines the next day: Who stole the diva's dress?

The following morning, a dazed woman on the run from thugs, is shot down in front of some cops sitting in a cafe; she manages to hide a very incriminating audio tape of her lover - the crime boss who happens to be the chief of police, Jean Saporta (not revealing much, we learn this pretty early in the film). As she staggers and falls she drops the tape inside a postman's sack attached to 'un mobilette' (a scooter). The postman is none other than Jules of the illegal taping of the night before. He finds the tape when he returns from delivering mail, but puts it aside with a shrug as something unimportant, possibly a tape he, himself, had forgotten about.

In the meantime, Jules has picked up the serious attentions of the two Taiwanese who want to get their hands on Jules' taping of Cynthia Hawkins' recital. But more importantly, he has also crossed the radar of two very ugly mob killers who have just killed the woman with the incriminating tape of the chief of police. Notice why you have to pay attention.

One of many visual highlights in the film is the view we first get of Jules' idiosyncratic apartment which is in a building that, obviously, was once a car repair garage. The walls of his flat are covered in huge, graphic paintings of flashy women and even flashier cars. It is the place where Jules keeps his expensive German recording and playing equipment - the only luxury he appears to indulge in. It is where he goes to listen, in solitude, to his recording of Cynthia Hawkins, the elusive diva. While listening he wraps her dress around his neck for comfort. Later, when he picks up a prostitute, he makes her wear the dress. Jules is obviously in danger of falling too deeply into obsession.

The film is about the various obsessions of each character. In truth, the only character who appears to have full control of his own particular obsession is the philosopher, Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) - a kind of lone ranger, music-loving, enigmatic jack of all trades who lives with Alba (Thuy An Luu), a smart-mouthing young Vietnamese woman he picked up in his travels. They live in a huge, mostly empty, loft in which Gorodish indulges his eccentricities and espouses his philosophy of life. Jules meets them by happenstance - a happenstance which later, ends up saving his life. One of the more intriguing and quixotically comic scenes in the film happens when Gorodish, inexplicably wearing snorkeling headgear, explains to Jules, the Zen of buttering 'un baguette' while Alba roller skates around the floor of the loft. Somehow, it all seems perfectly normal.

In the meantime, Jules has managed to meet the diva again and confesses he was the one who made off with her dress. But he is so obviously besotted with her that she forgives him - finding something touching in his devotion. She explains to him that she cannot bear the thought of recording her voice - there is no immediacy, no spontaneity in a recording. They spend the day together in some beautiful vignettes as they walk around Paris - accompanied by a stirring soundtrack - and later return to her suite at the hotel. But she holds him at bay, still cautious. He sleeps on a divan, alone.

Afterward, Jules, overcome with guilt, tries to make things right. But he finds he cannot break free of the web which is closing in around him as he is followed by killers and recording pirates (neither knowing of the others' existence). Jules must fend for himself without knowing who his enemies are or why they're after him, until he listens to the tape he found in his mail satchel.

Little by little, Jules begins to put together the pieces of the puzzle. But he has no one to turn to as the cops can't be trusted and he doesn't want to let any of the sordid details touch the elusively pristine haven he's found with his diva. The dichotomy between the gentle love story and the brutish details of the other is filmed in a way that makes sure we understand Jules' reluctance to allow each to touch the other.

But Jules appears to have lost control of his life. There is a terrific chase sequence when Jules, on a borrowed motorbike, eludes the cops, riding the bike into, onto and out of the Metro. Another harrowing sequence in the film occurs on a night when the killers close in and Jules, stabbed and bleeding, must elude them within the garish confines of an arcade. With no one left to turn to he makes one desperate call to Gorodish, a man he hardly knows, but instinctively trusts.

From this moment on, in my view, the film takes on the tone of fantasy as Gorodish takes on the role of nemesis. (The how and why of this doesn't need explanation - it just is.) This last third of the movie is all about retribution. One of the scenes features the presence of the most beautiful Citroen motorcar you will ever see - a visual joke which you will get just seconds after the car is blown up. Gorodish not only takes care of the corrupt chief of police and the Taiwanese record pirates (who, apparently do not know what they've actually stepped into), but also the two coldly determined hired killers. All this he accomplishes with sleight of hand finesse, style and a pragmatic attention to detail.

When finally, Jules is able to return his concert tape to the diva, he first plays it on the loudspeaker system in the hall where she is alone, rehearsing. She hears her own voice on recording for the first time. He takes her in his arms.

A very satisfying ending.

Please watch the trailer of DIVA, here.


  1. What a detailed, and involving review. I do wish that you could review some of the modern cinema releases. I would have a much better idea of whether or not to go see the movie based on a review such as you have just given. :-)

  2. The problem is, Dave, that I rarely see new films when they first come out. I normally wait for Netflix to make them available. That's just the way it is for me right now.

    But thanks for dropping by and I hope you enjoyed reading my review anyway.

  3. Whew! I'm exhausted from tearing around Paris.

    Are you sure this isn't ten movies?

    I must find this and see it on a day when I'm well-rested or I'll just be worn out from following the plot.

    It's like Tell No One, the French movie made from a Harlan Coben book (this is one case where the movie was far better than the book). If one misses one second, one has lost the plot.

    Thanks for the review.

  4. Sumptuous is a word I don't often use. But that's how I feel about DIVA. An amazing movie experience for me the first time I saw it. And it's one I return to many a time. When I found the soundtrack on CD I was elated - having lost my cassette copy (along with my entire music collection) ages ago in a traumatic burglary that shocked me into what life was like in the big city. The music (apart from the now too familiar La Wally aria) written specifically for the movie is mesmeric.

  5. Kathy: the screenplay IS confusing IF you're one of those people (like I often am) who is doing ten different things while watching a movie. For this one, you have to pay full attention and the rewards are ample. :)

    I can't stress enough what a wonderful movie experience this is.

  6. John: a great word - sumptuous - to use for this movie. It IS that and more.

    Of my five favorite films of all time, this is one.

    I don't get tired listening to Wiggins Fernandez singing La Wally.

    For me, this is film-making brought to high art.

    But it's not for everyone. This is the sort of film that either grabs you by the imagination or it doesn't. There are not two 'buts' about it.

  7. My library has Diva. I just put it on reserve.

    Well, this obviously is a movie while I must watch vigorously, no crossword puzzle doing, no New York Times skimming, no bill paying, but 100% rapt attention.

  8. Oh, after all my hype, I do hope you like it. Let me know. :)

  9. Yvette, I haven't seen this movie since it was first released, but your vivid review reminded me just how much I enjoyed it. "Delirious" is how I'd describe it!

  10. Thanks, Rick. You've only seen DIVA once? Oh the shame of it. HA!

    I had it on videotape and wore the damn thing out. I'm saving up for the new re-mastered dvd.

  11. Yvette, I've loved DIVA since I first saw it with one of my best buddies, Rosemarie, when it opened in NYC at the now-defunct Plaza Theatre. We were wowed by the cool, edgy visuals, the suspense, the hipster humor, and the way they somehow blended poignant romance and love of music into the whole crazy thing. Gorodish was like some kind of Zen Fairy Godfather/Action Hero. Glad to hear you loved it as much as we did!

    I was having trouble getting into my blog, too, until my computer genius hubby Vinnie hooked me up with Mozilla/Firefox. Once I got the hang of it, it made life a lot less frustrating! :-) Good luck, my friend!

  12. Ah, the Plaza, I used to work within walking distance. I thought it would always be there.

    Yes, isn't this a great movie? I have five favorites that will probably never be surpassed - this is one of them. I simply love it.
    I have since the first moment I saw it years ago but damn if I can remember where it was that I did see it for the first time.

    Old lady memory - GAK!

  13. Over the weekend, I saw a 5-part, 5-hour BBC/HBO thriller called Five Days, which was excellent. It kept me on the edge of my seat, with no skimming newspapers or doing crossword puzzles. Got it from the library.
    Also saw Invictus, a wonderful movie about post-apartheid South Africa. Morgan Freeman was robbed of the Oscar on that one.
    And I read a Camilleri/Montalbano book, which is on the Daggers shortlist, Wings of the Sphinx. Lots of fun. I laughed out loud and grinned.
    BBC mystery dvds are at my library in abundance, so my entire fun weekend was free.
    Just started Fer-de-Lance, and am about to write down your top Wolves (Wolfe plural?).

  14. I still have Narrow Margin, a train mystery to go, and Cairo Time, a contemporary story with Patricia Clarkson, whom I adore. (She and Melissa Leo, of Frozen River and more, can ACT!)

  15. Another train mystery (book) for your consideration, Kathy:


    I will be seeing CAIRO TIME as soon as I get a chance. I read about it, sounds wonderful.

  16. In this instance, Kathy, you would say 'Wolfs'. :)

    A weekend spent reading and watching films is a very good weekend indeed.

  17. I can't remember, Yvette. Did I send you my article on Diva? (One of the first ones I ever published.

  18. Yes you did Robin and we had a good discussion about it. But damn if I could find it again. I put the essay away for safe keeping. But, as things have a habit of doing around here, when I put something away for safe keeping it seems to disappear forever. Safe but invisible.

    I meant to quote from it for my post on Diva, but...

  19. I caught DIVA in its original run in Honolulu, and enjoyed it, but was put off by the improbability of a diva, even an extremely eccentric one, who so resolutely refused to be recorded (and the resolution of that dilemma). It is a film of great visual and aural beauty, no two ways about it.

  20. Well, I saw the grand craziness that is Diva tonight. I had to keep rewinding and looking at scenes and dialogue subtitles.

    I think I'll have to see it again to get very nuance.

    It was a lot of fun, and the woman who sings, Wilhelmenia Fernandez, is incredible. What a voice!

    This was an experience. I will see it again to make sure I caught every detail.

  21. Don't make it a chore, Kathy. It's a quirky film not to everyone's taste. I know that. :)

  22. Diva has a lot to it, though. It is called a "cult classic." I can see why that is.

    I enjoyed it.

    I loved the moped chase through the Metro. That was one of the best vehicular chase scenes I've ever seen.

    But I wondered about Wilhamenia Fernandez. She doesn't appear to have had a huge career. What a shame, with her beautiful voice.

  23. Yvette, it turns out Wilhelmenia (Wiggins) Fernandez is still enjoying a great operatic career, and she's even won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in AIDA! Check it out:

  24. Kathy: Yes, that chase scene is something! Those two cops were such losers though. Everything going on under their very noses - ha!

    If you see Dorian's last comment, though, Kathy, you'll see that Fernandez is still working. I love that. She was so beautiful though, I'm basically surprised she didn't do many more movies.

  25. Dorian: THANKS for the tip about Wilhelmenia! It's great to know that she was not a one shot wonder. I still wish, though, that she'd made more films. But in a way, that makes DIVA that much more special.

  26. Hi, the scuba mask (and snorkel) was used to prevent Gorodish from having onion tears. I used to do this, even before this movie hit the screen. My friends thought it was hilarious that I didn't even notice my own behavior on the screen.

  27. Now that is funny, Ernie. I'd have thought it a bit expreme just to keep from 'crying' over the onions. But hell, to each his own. :)

    I'd still prefer to think that Gorodish has some sort of mystical thing going on.


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