When "Diva" premiered in France in 1981, the country wasn't feeling it. In fact, the movie's director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, remembers the reception as being "critically and theatrically extremely bad."
"The film was taken out from theaters after two weeks, and remained in a single theater during one year," the 61-year-old Parisian says in an e-mail interview. "At that time, I thought I had made two films for the price of one: my first and my last."
Luckily, six months after the movie's French release, it played the Toronto Film Festival, where the response was more favorable. A subsequent release in the States followed, where it was showered with praise and audience attendance. North America's love for the film prompted the French to begrudgingly accept the movie as a success. "Diva" eventually ended up winning four Cesars, the French equivalent to the Oscars. Not bad for a movie that was dismissed as "an empty video clip." (Since the movie hit the scene the same year MTV crept into consciousness, the movie and the network seem like kindred spirits.)
"Twenty five years later, the whole thing makes a very nice story," says Beineix. "Unfortunately, some influential French film critics never forgave this triumph and made me pay for that until now."
Since November, Beineix's slick, stylish debut tale of love, murder, intrigue and art has been doing a silver anniversary rerelease lap across the country, hitting art-house theaters in major markets. The movie will finally make its big-screen, Triangle stop at the Colony, beginning today.
Based on Delacorta's 1979 crime novel of the same name, the movie follows Jules (Frederic Andrei), a postman who is head-over-heels in love with Cynthia Hawkins (American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), a famed opera singer who refuses to have her performances recorded, opting to wow audiences live. He sneaked in a recorder one night and taped a performance while no one was looking -- and also stole her gown in the process. Yeah, the dude is obsessed with her.
Obsession fuels the movie. As Jules attempts to get close to his object of desire, he also unknowingly is hunted down by lethal enforcers and the cops, looking for an incriminating cassette tape dropped in his moped bag by an on-the-lam prostitute. There are also Taiwanese record pirates who get wind of Jules' recording and want their hands on that, too.
"Obsession is probably a significant part of what I am dealing with," says Beineix. "I think that any sincere artist is obsessed by its art, by perfection or reaching the upper stage of awareness or understanding. But meanwhile, aren't we living in an obsessed world? The only thing that differs is the nature of obsession."
For Beineix, who started out serving as an assistant director to other films (including Jerry Lewis' notoriously unreleased Holocaust comedy "The Day the Clown Cried"), movies have been an obsession since he was a kid. And one of the great things about "Diva" is how much that comes across. With its mesh of genres, conventions and other aspects of pop culture (it's virtually a French New Wave film with an '80s new-wave attitude), it's an example of how exhilarating watching a movie made by someone who obviously loves movies can be.
"Diva" practically predates what Quentin Tarantino would be doing with his films by a decade. However, Beineix said it was his intention "to show the world I was living in at that time. Music was sprouting everywhere and combinations started to explode all over the world. I just remembered that I had to fight with my producers to keep this line, said by the diva in her news conference: It is to business to adapt to art and not to art to adapt to business."
Beineix has made many movies in France since "Diva," including documentaries, most notably a short on Jean-Dominique Bauby, the man whose life story inspired the recently Oscar-nominated "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
But Beineix still looks back fondly on his first movie, now that younger audiences are beginning to discover and older audiences are revisiting it. He even hopes the detractors who hated on the film when it was first released are starting to realize what the man was trying to do so long ago.
"Analysts still talk a lot about the style of 'Diva,' but the film had more substance than it first looked in 1981," he says. "To make it short, the film was ahead of its time. When I remember some critics, I feel great about that."