"You who find this letter, you should know that my hapless wandering lives on in you."
In another of his short films collaged from "found footage" rescued from aging silent movies, Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut pays tribute to long forgotten Italian film actresses who celebrated the gaudy philosophy of the fin de siecle in a spate of pictures spanning from 1913 to 1920. Diva Dolorosa is named for the "dolorous diva," an independently minded woman of passion who was the heroine of Black Romanticism, an artistic movement that was preoccupied with the ironic contradictions of humanity. They believed there was no life without death, no beauty without ugliness, and no fiery passion that would not eventually run out of fuel.
The trend that Delpeut spotted in these old films was that the sensuous woman always attracted attention, and as a result, she had to be punished. The other women she made jealous would want to see her brought down for her flagrant disregard of social mores, while the men she seduced could not accept not having her all to themselves. That, and given the heat the diva gave off, they had to let go before they suffered permanent burn scars. Call her a precursor to the femme fatale.
In this 70-minute film, Delpeut strings together a story of this seductive force, editing the rise and fall of these dangerous beauties in rhythm with a new score by Loek Dikker. An operatic narrative emerges from the pile of clippings, from the first allure through the indulgence of lust and the madness that ensues. By cutting from movie to movie even within the space of a short scene, the director is suggesting that this is not the story of one woman, but a story of all women who dare to live within their own bodies. The tragedy they suffer is both individual and social, something that, in the incongruity of Black Romanticism, arises from within but is neutralized from without.
Though I have had less than favorable reactions to some of Delpeut's other movies, this 1999 effort hits just the right spot for me. The heavy emotion of the subject, as well as the use of music to drive the story along, retains the awesome power of the images without altering them to fit a greater agenda. In that sense, Diva Dolorosa does justice by the women it has come to praise. In this film, they have the freedom to just be themselves.