Waiting for Neoliberalism

Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva

It’s hard to imagine a more stylish thriller than Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 picture Diva. But what makes the film special is the way it makes style serve substance.

Post-welfare state France. Diva, 1981.

As the great cultural theorist Frederic Jameson pointed out, Diva does a superb job of capturing the feel of Paris being transformed.

At the time, this was attributed to the election of François Mitterand, which promised a return to progressive values after the conservative doldrums of the 1970s.

In retrospect, we can recognize this period as one dominated by a neoliberal mindset, which used the cover provided by Mitterand’s socialist bona fides to consolidate its hold on the levers of power.

Although this trend ultimately proved to be as bad for France as it was for the United Kingdom and the United States, it did have the short-term benefit of weakening the rigid class hierarchies in the nation’s cultural life, which sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had exhaustively analyzed in his landmark book Distinction.

That’s where Diva comes in. Jules (Frédéric Andrei), the film’s main character, does not come from a privileged background. While his job delivering the mail on his moped makes him a civil servant, it is still basically a working-class pursuit. Yet, in spite of this, he does not follow football or rock and roll.

Jules lives in the sort of cavernous warehouse space popular with artists in major cities during the 1980s. He lives frugally, with one crucial exception. All of his spending money goes towards his love of opera.

Eschewing the convenience of the audio cassette, the format typically associated with someone of his standing, Jules has invested heavily in expensive reel-to-reel equipment.

His fandom is aspirational. While it is unlikely that he will be able to transcend his class origins from an economic standpoint, he has at least partially managed to do so on a cultural level. By drawing our attention to this misalignment, Diva provides valuable insight into the insidiousness of neoliberalism.

Like the would-be yuppies who never quite managed to earn enough money to indulge their tastes, Jules is a potential time bomb.

Within the context of the film, his dim future prospects are transmuted into physical threats, from both the working-class reality his taste belies and a business world he will likely never be able to inhabit.

The plot of Diva is not easy to follow the first time you see it. There’s too much going on to concentrate on the details that untangle its knots.

Part of the problem is that it features two distinct stories.

One invokes the rules of the detective genre, even as it transcends them, like some of the greatest films noirs. The other is harder to pin down but centres on the relationship between a celebrity, the fictional opera singer of the title, and her obsessive fan.

From a structural standpoint, the relationship between these interlocking stories resembles Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. The difference is that, whereas the protagonist of Hitchcock’s film is drawn into a vortex of depravity, Jules retains a strange innocence.

Even when he does things that are clearly wrong – illegally recording the recital of lyric soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Fernandez), stealing her gown after the show, picking up a prostitute and making her wear it to excite him – these actions don’t turn the audience against him.

On the contrary, Jules becomes an accidental hero, not only because he helps bring down a crime ring, but because his theft provides the impetus for the diva’s change of heart.

This is where Diva’s substance shines through most brightly.

Diva does a remarkable job of fleshing out the argument Walter Benjamin makes in his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

At the beginning of the film, Hawkins doesn’t want her performances recorded for posterity. She believes that making it possible to hear them over and over will deprive them of the ephemeral quality that makes them special.

While this respect for what Benjamin called the aura seems admirable, it perpetuates a power dynamic that puts working-class fans like Jules at a serious disadvantage.

When Jules meets Hawkins backstage and asks for her autograph, she recognizes the level of his devotion, marvelling that he travelled to Germany on his moped to see one of her previous recitals.

Yet Hawkins fails to comprehend the structural implications of her refusal to permit recordings, namely that it prevents other people of limited means from being able to experience her art.

By recording Hawkins’ concert on his beloved Nagra deck, Jules facilitates the democratisation of art that Benjamin identifies with the new medium of cinema.

A great many people have misunderstood Walter Benjamin’s argument over the years, not only because of their own unconscious biases but because Benjamin struggled to overcome his own.

Even as he makes a political case for dismantling the aura, the part of Benjamin who was an avid collector is clearly reluctant to see the singularity of works of art give way to potentially limitless multiplicity.

Diva communicates similar ambivalence. We want Jules to survive. And we identify with his struggle to win over someone who is, in the parlance of dating apps, far out of his league. At the same time, we get the distinct impression that the narrative is punishing him for his transgressions.

While it’s a complete accident that an incriminating cassette tape ends up in his moped’s bag, leading to him being hunted by the crime boss’s nasty henchman, the other people who are pursuing him want the reel-to-reel tape he made at Hawkins’ concert. There is a price to pay for stealing, even when if he doesn’t mean to do any harm.

The deus ex machina in French stories has frequently aligned with the state, most famously in the seventeeth-century Molière plays where the king himself plays that role. In Diva, by contrast, it takes the form of two free agents, the middle-aged bohemian Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) and his Vietnamese girlfriend Alba (Thuy An Luu), who also live in a cavernous warehouse space.

These are Diva’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the only characters from the Delacorta novel that Beineix adapted who appear in other books from the series.

When we first encounter Gorodish, he seems content to spend his time smoking Gauloises and doing puzzles. Once Alba convinces him to help Jules, however, he springs into action, revealing himself to be an impossibly cool, astonishingly efficient anti-hero.

Like the protagonists of popular American television series and movies from the 1970s, such as Serpico and The Rockford Files, Gorodish has an ironclad sense of justice – informed, in his case, by a fascination with Eastern philosophy – that is deeply suspicious of institutionalised power.

In other words, he perfectly captures the fantasy that former members of the counterculture had about themselves as they pivoted from politics to business or culture.

While Gorodish’s actions are undeniably noble within the context of Diva’s plot, it’s not hard to see how figures like him could be used to justify neoliberal assaults on the postwar welfare state.

Nor is it difficult to perceive latent toxicity in the character of Jules. While his fandom ultimately wins Hawkins over, that has a lot to do with his fresh-faced appearance and easygoing demeanour.

An older, more experienced Jules, one made bitter by the widening gap between his high-end taste and lower-income reality, might just seem like a creepy stalker.

If we bear these cautionary notes in mind, Diva starts to seem considerably more disturbing, a lot closer to Vertigo or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet than initially appeared to be the case.

That’s important to remember when processing Diva’s final scene, in which Jules returns the reel-to-reel tape to Hawkins – as he had previously returned her dress – but makes her listen to it play over the speakers in the same concert hall where he recorded it.

The expression on Hawkins’ face indicates that she has had a change of heart. Hearing herself sing is like looking into a mirror.

The doppelgänger echoing through the concert hall demonstrates that the beauty she creates need not be singular but can survive mechanical reproduction.

When we consider the long-term impact of neoliberalism, however, it becomes awfully difficult to extricate this democratic impulse from the ruthless drive to make every kind of private experience public and find a way to make a profit from it.

Screenshot courtesy of Jean-Jacques Beineix. All rights reserved.