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Love, death and opera: Why Diva still seduces

Forty-one years later, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva remains the quintessential Cinéma du look film and a wacky sensorial delight

A still from 'Diva'
A still from 'Diva'

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Seven years ago, I watched Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang for the first time at Deepak Cinema in Mumbai. One scene in particular I will never forget. Denis Lavant is standing by himself, smoking, as something melancholy plays on the radio. Then, the DJ announces the next track, David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’. As the famous chuk-chuka-chuk intro plays, Lavant starts lurching down the street, the camera tracking alongside. Never breaking his stride, he sprints and dances and caterwauls to the driving rhythm of the horns. When it ended, I felt I had levitated out of my seat. It might be my favourite scene in all of cinema.

Carax is one of three directors most commonly associated with Cinéma du look, a style that emerged in France in the 1980s. It favoured stylised visuals over realism, sensorial delight over unobtrusive technique. Carax had some success with Mauvais Sang and Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf and remains an arthouse favourite today. Luc Besson made a splash with Subway and La Femme Nikita; he had a commercial movie career till a few years ago, when rape allegations surfaced against him. And then there’s Jean-Jacques Beineix.

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When Beineix died in January this year, it didn’t really register. It had honestly been a long time—more than 30 years—since he'd made a film that everyone talked about. And yet, Diva is the quintessential Cinéma du look film. Now streaming on MUBI, it’s ripe for rediscovery—or is it just ripe? Everything in it is a touch too much: the arch references, the little tricks with camera and cutting, the knowing performances. It gave me the same intense pleasure that the Mauvais Sang scene did—less euphoric, more sustained.

“Every shot seems designed to delight the audience,” Pauline Kael wrote enthusiastically when the film came out in 1981. All these years later, you can see why Kael would respond to this odd, beautiful film. Jules (Frédéric Andréi) is a delivery boy in Paris, an opera fan on a mobilette. His days and nights are spent dreaming of American soprano Cynthia (Wilhelmenia Fernandez), whom he watches in performance at the film’s start, and records surreptitiously. He develops a friendship with breathless Alba (the delightful Thuy An Luu), girlfriend of the mysterious Serge (Richard Bohringer). There’s a prostitution ring and a murdered sex worker, a pair of assassins, another pair of Taiwanese blackmailers, and an assortment of detectives after two tapes, one a recording of Cynthia, the other with evidence related to the murder—both of which end up with Jules.

It’s so convoluted and flimsy a story you can imagine Beineix cracking up as he committed it to paper. There’s not much happening below the surface—but you don’t need much else if the surface is this enticing. Jules’ loft is a pop art fantasia of semi-pulped cars, recording equipment and huge Roy Lichtenstein-like paintings. Alba and Serge’s place is also singularly weird, a gigantic room where he assembles a puzzle and she skates around. Everything is strange, yet tactile and sensuous. There are two spectacular chases: one with Jules on a bike, descending into a metro station and leaving on a train, the other with him on foot, running to a parking garage and ending in a game arcade.

For a film with little sex, it’s a very sexy film. Alba’s shoplifting technique involves slipping an LP into a large folder; when the shopkeeper asks her to show its contents, it’s a series of arty nudes of her. After two or three, the shopkeeper stops in embarrassment and Alba has her free album. Jules’ relationships with both the women are seemingly platonic. Beineix teases us in the scene after Jules and Cynthia’s romantic walk. We had seen him being gifted a carved, chirping bird. The first scene the next morning is Cynthia asleep in her bed. We hear twitters even as the camera pans to reveal the bird, suggesting Jules slept in the same bed. But then we see him on a sofa, under a bedsheet but very awake, his mind evidently on people in other rooms.

It’s hard not to imagine Quentin Tarantino watching this and taking notes. About 10 years before the Jules of Pulp Fiction quoted Ezekiel 25:17, the Jules of Diva signs off a phone conversation with “Abyssus abyssum invocat”—the deep calls the deep—from “the Vulgate Bible”. If Tarantino adapted the Madison dance from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande À Part, Beineix might have had in mind Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo walking down the Champs-Elysées in Godard's first film. The sequence in Diva is as playful as the one in Breathless. “Is it opera?” Jules asks, referring to the building printed on Alba’s skirt. “No,” she replies, “it’s my butt.”

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