Driving to “Diva”

There are people who enjoy movies. They might see a film once or even twice a month. There are people who love movies. For them, a movie a week is the minimum for film enjoyment. Then there are the film fanatics like myself. For me, I want to see a film in the theater and maybe one at home but if there’s a film festival close by…then I may see five to ten films in one week. My record is five films in one day!

Last week I did something extreme for even my own level of movie consumption. I drove from my home in Broomall, PA (outside Philly and the Main Line) to NYC to see a favorite film. It was a two-hour drive to Film Forum in SOHO. I didn’t mind the drive. It’s not particularly scenic till you get close to the Delaware river or cross over into New Jersey. But it was an expensive venure: toll roads are hard to avoid and it’s $16 to make your way through the Holland Tunnel. Plus parking! Now, I’ve lived in San Francisco, so I know something about parking. I wisely booked a garage ahead of time but it still cost me a pretty penny.

I’m thankful that I still search out the Friday NYTimes most weeks, or I would’ve missed Wesley Morris’ review of watching the 1981 film “Diva” in advance of it’s screening at Film Forum. “Hooked Immediately…Four Decades Later” Sadly, his article lead me to believe the film had been restored, and it may have been, though the 35mm projection looked very much as I remembered it. Film Forum has held over the film due to the film’s popularity but the website notes that “Diva” is screened in 35mm, no mention of restoration.

It was fun to part of a such an appreciative audience. The 3 pm matinee was full of mostly masked film lovers, many bringing friends to see “Diva” for the first time. I heard a couple of young women speaking in French. There was some chat about this being many people’s favorite film as we filed into the theater and I wasn’t the only one taking photos of the poster or the marque to mark the occasion. Clearly I was in good company. The soundtrack was playing as we waited for the film to start.

Fernandez, left, who plays Cynthia Hawkins, is a real-life opera singer from Philadelphia. Credit…Rialto Pictures

When Jean-Jacques Beineix’s directorial debut, “Diva” premiered in 1981, it became an International sensation. Some theaters ran the film for months. It won four César Awards (cinematography for Philippe Rousselot, Best First Film, Best Sound, Best Music) and began a French film movement some called cinéma du look. Each setting in the film seems to be art-directed for a gritty realism, but also a punk-rock beauty. The aesthetic is similar to “Bladerunner” or the films of Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It’s no wonder that two of my favorite films, “Delicatessen” and “The Fifth Element” were inspired by this film.

It’s the look of the film that’s the most memorable paired with the mesmerizing soundtrack. A synthesizer-heavy 80’s sound is mixed with opera and lush atmospheric music. Combining a story of a young man’s obsession with an opera singer and a crime drama about sex traffiking and crooked cops, Beineix weaves a complex tale of mobsters, music, art and violence. Our lovelorn protagonist is a mobile mailman on a moped. The chase scenes through Paris are nerve-wracking and bit of a blur. Filmed to make you feel as if you’re riding on the back of that moped as it careens down stairwells and crashes in the subway.

There’s a melancholy feeling that accompanies the scene of the opera singer (Wilhelmenia Fernandez, a soprano from Philadelphia) and the young man (Frédéric Andréi) as they wander rainy Paris in an early morning fog. It’s filmed with no artificial lights and no dialogue. There’s just the two of them, a great beauty carrying an umbrella and a misfit who’s in love with her even as he’s also betrayed her. It’s a long scene that ends with him moving to sit closer to her and finally, draping his arm on her shoulder. The film is full of moments like this. From careening thru the City in a race to outpace the killers, to quiet scenes of seagulls viewed thru a lighthouse window–it’s a unique pacing that allows the viewer time to recover and to appreciate the mise en scène.

Was it worth a four hour drive and expensive tolls and parking? Perhaps not. But I’m still thinking about the film and enjoying my memories of those images.

Drinks With Films rating: 4 1/2 bowls of French coffee, sipped in an artfully-arranged space while listening to opera (out of 5)

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