Film Length: 117 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.66 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: DD 2.0 (mono)
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Lionsgate is starting new series called the "Meridian Collection", which the company describes
as "a compilation of acclaimed, groundbreaking and influential films from around the world".
The plan is to release two new Meridian Collection DVDs every three months. In the first group
is the 1981 French "thriller" Diva. If the quality of this DVD is any indication of what's to come,
the Meridian Collection will be an exciting series for film lovers.
I put the word "thriller" in quotes above, because, even though that's how Diva is usually described,
it's not an accurate description. Then again, there really isn't a category for Diva. The film is a world
unto itself. I've seen it maybe half a dozen times since it first became an arthouse sensation in the
U.S. in 1982, and it's always compulsively watchable. But it plays differently every time.
At the most literal level, Diva is about two audio tapes. The first is a recording of a renowned but
eccentric America opera singer--Cynthia Hawkins, the diva of the title, played by the real American
soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez--who refuses to record her performances, because she believes that the
bond with her audience is a sacred experience that should only happen in person. But a young French
postman named Jules is so deeply in love with the diva and her voice that he sneaks a Nagra recorder
(state-of-the-art for this pre-digital age) into one of her concerts and captures a nearly perfect rendition,
strictly (as we say today) for personal use. Unbeknownst to Jules, though, his activities have been
observed by two Taiwanese businessmen, whose interest in the recording is purely commercial and
whose methods are unscrupulous.
The second recording is a cassette containing a detailed confession by the mistress of a crime
boss who runs a prostitution ring. This tape, which implicates important people, ends up in
Jules's mail bag, but he doesn't know it, and he spends much of the film being chased by various
people for reasons he cannot understand. The scariest is the character known only as "Le Curé",
whose shaved head and sunglasses became the iconic image of the film. (The character also
launched the career of the French actor Dominique Pinon, now familiar from such films as Amélie,
City of Lost Children, Alien Resurrection and the current Roman de Gare.)
In between chases, Jules manages to bluff his way into the diva's hotel suite and win her
friendship, thereby beginning one of the more unlikely (and chaste) romances in modern movie
history. Jules also meets Alba, a sort of Vietnamese Lolita, and her patron (for lack of a better
word), Gorodish, a mysterious figure of apparently limitless means who lives in a giant blue-tinted
loft space and approaches everything, whether it be negotiating with killers or spreading butter on
baguette, with Zen-like detachment.
Diva was adapted from one of a series of popular novels chronicling the adventures of Alba and
Gorodish, and in other hands it could have easily become a forgettable crime film. Instead, in 1980,
it was handed to writer-director Jean-Jacques Beineix, who, along with Leos Carax and Luc Besson,
would over the next few years either revolutionize or (depending on your point of view) ruin French
cinema. Like their contemporaries in America, these directors were heavily influenced by the imagery
of advertising. Much of the early criticism of Diva was for its heavy reliance on visuals and its lack of
traditional narrative exposition. It was dismissed as a "comic book" at a time when that was not a
compliment. The style it established was christened the cinema du look because of its preoccupation
with surface appearances.
But today, more than a quarter of a century later, what's most striking about Diva is the dread
pulsing beneath all those gorgeous surfaces. Beneix constantly places his characters in huge spaces that
threaten to swallow them. And the spaces are never natural, but always man-made: opera houses, factories,
cityscapes, subway tunnels. As much as the film appears to luxuriate in these man-made environments,
they are also the source of almost constant unease--and not just from Le Curé and the other unsavory
characters chasing Jules. The film opens with Jules himself committing an act of violation against the
person he holds most dear by secretly taping her concert; the diva calls it a "rape" when a reporter asks
her about bootleg recordings. It's a kind of poetic justice that Jules should become the object of pursuit
over a tape involving prostitution, because that is how the diva views the recording and sale of her
performances. When she allows Jules to befriend her, it is at a moment of great vulnerability, when she
has reason to fear that such violations of her art have become inevitable. Of course, she doesn't yet know
that the very admirer she is taking into her confidence is the prime violator.
Eventually, the crime plot gets resolved (with help from Gorodish), and Diva begins where it ends:
in a performance space. But no one is performing, and the ending is both romantic and tinged
with sadness. I find it more moving with each viewing.
Anchor Bay previously released Diva on DVD in 2000 in what, at the time, appeared to be a
serviceable edition. After watching the new Lionsgate Meridian edition, I went back to the old
Anchor Bay disc. Comparing the two was a revelation.
As did Anchor Bay, Lionsgate presents Diva in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with 16:9
enhancement. There is slight windowboxing at the sides to allow for the proper aspect ratio,
but this may be hidden on many monitors due to overscan.
The similarities end there, however. Lionsgate's transfer was approved by director Beineix, and it
is, in a word, gorgeous. But let me be absolutely clear about what I mean by that, because there
will probably be reviews that disagree.
Diva was shot on a low budget, using relatively little artificial light and with cinematographer Philippe
Rousselot often having to improvise the means to attain the effects that Beneix wanted. (Rousselot
has since become a world-class cinematographer, winning an Oscar for A River Runs Through It and
lensing numerous major Hollywood films.) The finished product is beautifully composed with vivid
colors, but film grain is always visible, especially in night scenes. And unlike the Anchor Bay disc, none
of the grain appears to have been removed through digital noise reduction. Anchor Bay's disc is
noticeably smoother, but it's also duller, flatter and muddier. Take the wonderful sequence where
Jules and the diva walk through a deserted Paris in the early morning. The Lionsgate image pulses
with grain, but it also pulses with life and warmth. Anchor Bay took away all the grain, but they also
took away much of the image and all of the life. The sequence depends entirely on its visuals, and
the Anchor Bay disc alters the visuals so drastically that the sequence is no longer the same. In fact,
I can't think of a better demonstration of the evils of DNR than to run these two discs side-by-side.
(Note that this is not something you can evaluate in screen caps. The evils of DNR are revealed in
Unfortunately, the internet is full of DVD "reviewers" who downgrade a disc at the first sign of
grain. They don't realize when they're being presented with exactly what should be there. I hope
Lionsgate is reading this, and I hope they ignore such philistines and continue putting out
fabulous transfers like this one. It's exactly how classics should be handled. (And yes, I would
love to see Diva on Blu-ray someday.)
The sole audio track is French mono, which is the original audio format. Fidelity and dynamic
range were excellent, and to my ear this track was more pleasing than Anchor Bay's attempt to
remix the audio for DD 5.1. My only criticism is that the mono track is presented at DD 2.0
at 192kp/ps. I prefer mono tracks to be presented as DD 1.0 at 192kp/ps, but it's a minor
quibble. The disc includes English and Spanish subtitles.
No one could accuse these special features of being mere fluff. They fall into two categories:
Scene specific commentary with director Beneix (app. 43:00). Instead of a feature-length
commentary, specific sections of the film are accompanied by commentary. These sections
can be selected separately from a menu or played all at once. Beneix speaks in French, with
a simultaneous English translation in voiceover. Always the intellectual, he has little interest in
telling production stories and focuses more on that he sees today as the important elements
of the film. It is obvious that he remains proud of Diva and continues to take great satisfaction
in its ultimate success after its initial rejection.
"Searching for Diva. A series of contemporary interviews with cast and crew members that
can be selected separately from a menu or played all at once. These are somewhat rougher
and less polished than the documentaries that accompany major studio productions, and I
much preferred their sense of spontaneity and authenticity. Some of the stories are fascinating,
such as composer Vladimir Cosma's account of improvising one of the film's signature music
cues on the spot in the recording studio when Beneix became dissatisfied with the classical
selection they had originally chosen. The interviews alternate between French and English,
and those in French are accompanied by simultaneous voiceover translation. An interesting
note: Although Beneix's commentary is in French, his interview is in English, which he speaks
quite well. A complete list of the interview segments follows:
Introduction by Professor Phil Powrie & Eric Grinda (6:20)
Vladimir Cosma (composer) (10:46)
Dominique Besnehard (casting director) (7:19)
Frederic Andrei ("Jules") (5:46)
Anny Romano ("Paula") & Dominique Pinon ("Le Curé") (12:01)
Richard Bohringer ("Gorodish") (6:54)
Jean-Jacques Beneix (writer-director), pt. 1 (11:00)
Jean-Jacques Beneix (writer-director), pt. 2 (8:32)
Philippe Rousselot (cinematographer) (6:04)
Hilton McConnico (production designer) (6:49)
Unlike his compatriot Luc Besson, who quickly left the confines of French cinema for the world
market and who would pay tribute to Diva in the The Fifth Element's character of the all-blue
Plavalaguna (Diva's signature color), Jean-Jacques Beneix has never again attained the kind of
success that he enjoyed with his first film. Watching the film on this excellent DVD, listening to
Beneix on the commentary and in the interviews, it's not hard to understand why. Here is a
filmmaker who, no matter how adept he may be at manipulating the technology of film, ultimately
doesn't trust it--or any other technology. We're used to hearing filmmakers cast aspersions on the
commercialization of art, but it's rare to hear one turn his critical faculties on technology itself. But
that is exactly what Beneix did through the character of the diva, even though he (and, in the end,
she) knows that opposing technology is idealistic and futile. Embodying that stance of hopeless
resistance in a film, one of the most technological of artistic media ever conceived, is a big part
of what keeps Diva endlessly fascinating
Release date: June 3, 2008
Postscript: After this review was submitted, additional issues regarding the video transfer were noted by Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver. These issues are discussed further down in this thread. To summarize:
- The Lionsgate version exhibits cropping (I would call it "slight" but YMMV) at the right edge of the screen, compared to the Anchor Bay; depending on your monitor's overscan, the difference may or may not be visible, although it is observable on screen captures.
- There is a small difference in geometry between the two transfers -- sufficiently small that it is not noticeable until screen caps from the two transfers are placed side-by-side. Gary believes the Lionsgate version has been stretched and is seeking further clarification from the disc's producers.
- Gary believes the Lionsgate disc suffers from EE or "edge enhancement" and that the colors on the Lionsgate version are inaccurate. Here we simply disagree.
Edited by Michael Reuben - 7/23/2009 at 05:24 pm GMT