FILM (1981)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am

Frederic Andrei, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Richard Bohringer, Thuy An Luu
Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix

Jean-Jacques Beineix cut a curious figure when he visited Hong Kong in 2001. The French director readily admitted then that he was disillusioned with the film world and unsure of his place in it, at one stage saying that if the film he was here to promote - Mortal Transfer - didn't please the public, he'd just as soon walk away from filmmaking altogether.

That Beineix's directing career has stalled since that trip is as telling as it is semi-tragic. For when he emerged on the international scene in the early 1980s, it's fair to say no one had ever seen anything quite like the films he put together.

Diva, in short, was a sensation. In parts a modern take on the street-smart savvy of fellow French director Jean-Pierre Melville, it is also something else entirely as well: it is a thriller - and a little bit of a love story - but it is the style of Diva that still takes your breath away.

Beineix never rests on his laurels, and just when you think it's all going smoothly he'll take a savage cut into violence that shocks with its intensity.

The story centres around an illicit recording of an opera, a taped confession and the tug-of-war between those who want to profit from them both, including corrupt officials and an opera fan (Frederic Andrei, right with Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) who may or may not know what he's got himself involved in.

Beineix whirls us in and out of the action, never presenting things as they really are - his camera angles are off-kilter, often reflections that blur the lines between what we can suppose is real or imagined. Very 80s, yes, but also very good.

A hauntingly beautiful aria from Catalini's La Wally resonates throughout the film, helping create an atmosphere that is both dreamscape and nightmare, depending on your perspective.

In its way, Diva altered the template for French cinema of the 80s. A similar style can certainly be seen running through the icy frames of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982).

It picked up a score of awards at the Cesars - France's equivalent of the Oscars - and when Beineix returned with the Oscar-nominated Betty Blue in 1986, the film world, it seems, was his for the taking.

Those heights, though, have never been reached again. Beineix has since worked away with various organisations trying to protect his nation's cultural identity. Worthy for sure - but there are legions of fans worldwide hoping that some day he'll match the brilliance that is this, his international debut.