Zen in the Art of Buttering Bread

Diva (1981):

The Plot: Jules is a young Parisian postman (Frédéric Andréi) infatuated with a world-famous opera singer (Wilhelmina Fernandez). Though she has vowed never to have one of her performances recorded, Jules does just that, unwittingly attracting the attention of two underdeveloped Thai music pirates. Then, a dying prostitute sneaks a confession tape into a bag on Jules’ moped. Suddenly he’s the target of two hit men, a pimp, and a corrupt cop (two of the people on that list might be the same person). Jules finds refuge with an artist (Richard Bohringer) and his young Vietnamese girlfriend/model/muse (Thuy An Luu). Plot, romance, and art happen. There’s a bitchin’ chase through the subway. More plot and several climaxes occur, all wrapped in several layers of cool.

This film is quirky and French and full of spacey, artistic intellectualism. But it never goes too far, doesn’t stray into pretension. Diva is stylish and weird, but never for the sake of those things. It’s weird because it’s weird. It’s just being what it is.

For example, there’s this scene. Gorodish, the artist, is explaining to Jules his theory about Zen: “Some get high on airplane glue…detergent…fancy gimmicks…My satori is this: Zen in the art of buttering bread.” He says this all, of course, while wearing a snorkel and demonstrating the proper way to slice open a baguette. Reading that description, it may sound stupid and contrived and oh so very French, but not in a good way. Actually watching it, though, it isn’t any of those things. It’s not like having a pretentious screenwriter feed you a load of crap about Zen. It’s like having this artist guy you know—he’s kind of a friend of a friend, alright?—explain to you his theory about finding inner peace in the process of buttering a baguette. He’s not doing it because he wants you to think that he’s artistic. He’s just doing it because he’s kind of a weird guy who has these big ideas and wants to share them with you. Also, he’s hungry and maybe a little drunk. But, and this is the most important thing, he is totally sincere.

Artists, right?

Artists, right?

In a way, that scene kind of sums up the film. Diva is romantic, quirky, and thoughtful without always understanding its thoughts. It is what I call a “5 AM” movie. Not necessarily one you need to watch as the sun is rising, but one that’s perfect for a late night. One that requires a certain state of mind. I’m not talking about inebriation. It just helps if you can be as mellow and thoughtful and weird as the movie is. Certain songs are like that for me. Some of them clichés, some of them personal. You’ll have to wonder about the specifics, but I think you know what I mean. It’s that time of night when little things seem like big things. At 5AM, it’s easier to see the Zen in the art of buttering bread.

Okay, so this is a quirky French movie, and James likes to stay up super late. I’m still not impressed. Well, disembodied voice, what if I told you that on top of all the artsy stuff, Diva is also beautifully shot, with effective, understated performances, and an absolutely perfect soundtrack? I’m listening. Of course you are. You’re a voice in my head.

Director Jean-Jacques Beineix and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot create a vision of Paris perfectly in line with the film’s tone. I don’t want to get too Intro to Film Studies on you guys, but the way they frame shots and use the color blue feels like poetry sometimes. I talked about rain-soaked streets in my review of The Warriors on Monday. That movie gave us a sweaty, dirty New York that matched the grim determination of the protagonists and the greasy malevolence of the gangs chasing them. Diva’s Paris is beautiful, all sharp colors contrasting with unforgiving concrete and that un-insistent, ever-present blue. It’s a Paris made simultaneously for feverish longing and slow walks at dawn.

5 AM.

5 AM.

The actors make us feel like their characters are extensions of that Paris. The look in Jules’ eyes as he watches Cynthia Hawkins, the opera singer, when she performs at the beginning of the film says everything we need to know about his feelings. And the expression on her face as she sings speaks volumes about what her art means to her. Her singing, by the way, is one of the film’s greatest triumphs. Wilhelmina Fernandez is an actual opera singer, or was at the time, and her rendition of the Aria from Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally feels…profound.

Diva opera lady

Still, Diva is by no means a perfect film. There are times when the film is almost more concerned with juggling its plotlines than it is with things like mood and meaning. All loose ends are tied up, but the act of tying them is a little messy. Honestly, the corrupt cop/hit men angle could have been cut; the Thai music pirates were enough. Although the hit men are far more developed than the pirates, it wouldn’t have been hard to cut one pair and develop another. Still, it would have been a shame to lose Dominique Pinion in an early role as La Curé, the misanthropic hit man who listens to music while he carries out his assignments.

I won't spoil what he's listening to, though.

I won’t spoil what he’s listening to, though.

Ultimately, though, these are minor complaints. Even when it starts losing track of its Zen, Diva is still a beautiful piece of cinema. It’s funny, romantic, weird, and captivating. If you can get your hands or hard drives on a copy, I highly recommend that you check it out, even if you aren’t normally a big fan of the French, or artsy stuff.

And if you’re still not totally convinced, just close your eyes and listen to this:

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