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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Diva - Meridian Collection
Diva - Meridian Collection
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // June 3, 2008
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Phil Bacharach | posted June 10, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

When I first saw Diva back in 1982, I was a self-conscious and precocious 16-year-old movie geek prone to overestimate the worth of any foreign-language flick that featured a moped, atmospheric lighting and a synthesizer-heavy musical score.

Needless to say, Diva got to me.

I remember vividly how I was mesmerized by its overflow of style and look-at-me cool -- and it probably didn't hurt its mystique any that I saw it in a (what turned out to be short-lived) repertory movie theater in my Oklahoma hometown. At any rate, I was hardly the only one entranced by the directorial debut of Jean-Jacques Beineix. Despite a tepid initial reception in its native France, the movie became a hit on the international stage and sparked the so-called Cinéma du look movement of the 1980s. It is a testament to Diva's lasting appeal that it's among the first discs to be unveiled by the Meridian Collection, Lions Gate's new DVD series showcasing acclaimed works of international cinema.

Alas, Thomas Wolfe was right: You really can't go home again. Revisiting Diva more than 25 years after that magical viewing, I must admit this French import hasn't aged nearly as well as most wines from that country. The picture's Hitchcockian setup and oddball characters still make for breezy fun, but the passage of time has made it fairly obvious that Beineix's visual sleekness is only a so-so substitute for content.

Jules (Frédéric Andréi) is a moped-driving Paris postal carrier whose great obsession, apart from opera, is a specific opera singer named Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). He clandestinely records one of her performances, an act that seems innocuous enough until you learn that this diva has adamently refused to allow a recording of her singing (something about preserving the purity of the performer-audience connection, don'cha know).

At any rate, two sinister-looking Taiwanese businessmen at the concert spy Jules making his surreptitious recording. They plot to steal the tape from Jules -- presumably the pair doesn't have access to the same high-quality equipment as this young postman -- and use it to force Cynthia to cut an album for their record label. Jules, for his part, is oblivious to the dudes sitting behind him at the concert hall. He is more focused on palming the diva's gown backstage after the show.

Jules swipes the gown, but otherwise the poor schlub can't catch a break. A few days later, a prostitute is being pursued by two other sinister-looking dudes when she hurriedly drops a cassette tape into the bag on Jules' moped. The tape implicates a top-ranked law enforcement officer as the head of a prostitution-and-drug ring. The would-be whistleblower/hooker is offed by the bad guys, and it isn't long before both the police and the villains realize that the MacGuffin du jour is in the possession of the unsuspecting Jules.

It's all supremely implausible, of course, but, hey, that's the point. Beineix is spinning pure fantasy here, a mix and match of culture, pop art and whimsy. Despite the array of people after Jules and his tapes, Diva's excess of eccentricity renders it immune to suspense or even much of a feeling of danger. The chief heavy, portryed by Dominuiqe Pinon in his first filmic role, is a cartoon of menace; he is a pug-faced punker with an earpiece seemingly implanted permanently in his right ear. Jules' newfouind posse is equally absurd. He is aided by a coquettish, 15-year-old Vietnamese shoplifter (Thuy An Luu) and a Zen-like mystery man named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer).

The kookiness of Diva's characters is heightend by Beineix's fetishizing of their environs. Jules lives in a garage filled with wrecked luxury automobiles and a huge wall mural depicting an impending car collision. Gorodish's sparsely furnished loft includes a wave machine and a bathtub in the middle of the room. Jules hooks up with a streetwalker whose apartment is enveloped in moody blue lighting. It all adds up to a sumptuous dream of a movie, buoyed by the fluid, elegant camerawork of ace cinematographer Philippe Rousselot.

Trouble is, it doesn't add up to much more. Diva is playful and certainly stylish, but ultimately the work is plagued by paperthin characters and narrative. Performances are spotty, too. Bohringer brings charisma to Gorodish, but Thuy An Luu overacts while Andréi's Jules barely registers much of a presence at all. Subsequentlyt, quirks and nuances take the place of emotional resonance. That doesn't make Diva a bad film, by any means; it simply keeps Beineix's debut from the realm of timeless classic.

That said, Beineix is a gifted filmamker, and there are some wonderful scenes in Diva that transcend their surface charms. There is, of course, the justly celebrated chase scene in the Paris Metro -- involving a moped and a sprinting cop, no less! And it is impossible to shake the images of Jules and Cynthia's twilight stroll through Paris, a lovely montage accompanied by Vladimir Cosma's melancholy piano composition. That scene alone is one for the ages, even if Diva isn't.

The DVD

The Video:

Presented in 1.66:1 widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 screens, the picture quality is generally excellent, with rich colors and clear details. Some grain is visible in a number of darkly lit scenes, but that is attirbuted to the source material (if I recall correctly).

The Audio:

The French Dolby Digital 2.0 mix preserves the original theatrical track, and the sound is clean and clear with no noticable drop-out or distortion.

Optional subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Extras:

Beineix offers scene-specific commentary for seven scenes that can be viewed separately or via the "play all" option. The director, who speaks in his native French but is accompanied by an English translator, lets his pedantic flag fly. "It (the film) is anything but the slick, ice-cold movie as the critics said," proclaims Beineix. His remarks are interesting and occasionally insightful, but be prepared for some self-indulgent bluster.

Searching for Diva groups a number of edifying interviews from the film's cast and crew. Viewers can play all or check out each segment separately. First up is a six-mnute, 19-second introduction by Beineix biographer Phil Powrie and film producer Eric Grinda, the pair responsible for this featurette.

Composer Vladimir Cosma (10:44) discusses the critical role of music in the movie, casting director Dominique Besnehard (7:17) reminisces how Fernandez had to be fitted with a fake tooth to play the diva and actor Frédéric Andréi (5:45) recalls the on-set tensions between Beineix and producer Irène Silberman. Co-stars Anny Romand and Dominique Pinon wax nostalgic in a 12-minute segment, while Richard Bohringer (6:53) sings the praises of Beineix.

As for Beineix himself, the director talks at length about the film's themes and motifs in two segments: "holding ground" (10:59) and "in the café" (8:31). Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (5:58) addresses how he and Beineix set out to break certain rules of filmmaking, while set designer Hilton McConnico (6:47) chimes in on his contributions to Diva.

Several of the aforementioned interviewees speak in French, but an English translation is provided in voiceover.

Final Thoughts:

The self-conscious cool of Diva might feel like an Eighties relic nowadays, but Jean-Jacques Beineix's directorial debut remains an arresting -- and sometimes beautiful --valentine to the playful and romantic possibilities of cinema. Kudos to the Meridian Collection for a handsome presentation and meaty supplemental material.

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