Happy happy, joy joy, Diva is back. "That movie with the opera singer," an art cinema sensation in its first run in the '80s, is being rereleased as is — no annoying "Ultimate Director's Cut." And now a new generation has a big-screen chance to dunk itself in director Jean-Jacques Beineix' Paris, a topsy-turvy wonderland of stylistic riffs and thematic threads reverberating back on themselves for the sheer, exuberant, sexy hell of it.
The scenario — adapted by Beineix and Jean Van Hamme from the novel by Delacorta, aka Daniel Odier — is eventful enough for two movies. An unassuming Parisian postal messenger named Jules (played with a straight face by Frédéric Andréi) secretly audiotapes a concert hall performance by his idol, opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (real-life soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), but he is observed by a couple of sinister Asian men, who want the tape and seem willing to kill for it. As if that weren't enough, Jules also happens to be on the scene when a distraught woman drops an incriminating audiocassette into his saddlebags on the street while being pursued by two thugs named L'Antillais and Le Curé. The thugs kill the woman and eventually latch onto poor Jules.
So the messenger now has two MacGuffins in his possession and two pairs of goons on his trail. To his rescue come a Vietnamese-French teenage girl named Alba (the irresistible Thuy An Luu) and her enigmatic benefactor Gorodish (Richard Bohringer, dripping cool). Shake lightly and serve with beaucoup local color, hectic '80s-style visuals and chase music, and the enchanting theme song, the "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" aria from Alfredo Catalani's La Wally, sung by Ms. Wiggins Fernandez herself.
There are many types of cult movies. Diva is the sort in which a filmmaker like Beineix updates the feel and look of a previous era — in this case the French New Wave of the late '50s and '60s — with motifs from the '80s New Wave of electronically enhanced pop music, post-punk graphics, and luscious cinematography à la Philippe Rousselot, who gives Jules' noirish predicament the contours of a wet dream.
When the 1981 French production was first released in American art houses in 1982, critics — the smart ones, anyway — rhapsodized about Beineix' repackaging of the anarchic, pop-art, forever-young spirit of Godard, Truffaut, and the other nouvelle vague auteurs in a shiny new wrapper. Happily, this clash of waves manages to retain its freshness 25 years later, thanks mostly to its characters and the drop-dead romanticism of Catalani's aria. Coincidence, menace, obsession, and the dumb luck of the innocent still pertain in the 21st century, as do creamy white Citroën 11CVs.
Here's a handy checklist for Diva newcomers and veterans alike:
The music. Everyone knows about the famous aria, but Vladimir Cosma's soundtrack score is pretty good, too, especially the "Sentimental Walk" love theme and Gorodish's signature music. Also worth the price of the soundtrack CD: violinist Hubert Varron's instrumental version of the aria.
The decor and art direction. Jules and his moped live on the upper floor of an auto garage in an ultra-boho crib, a stripped-out space dominated by a painted car mural with working headlights and his beloved reel-to-reel tape deck. Gorodish's loft is even more spartan — only the kitchen is fully furnished, and practically the only other visible piece of furniture is the bathtub, where he bathes while smoking a cigar. The rest of the vast space is given over to Alba and her roller skates. The record store in which Jules meets Alba is a poignant reminder of the salad days of Rather Ripped, Mod Lang, etc. — twelve-inch vinyl album jacket clutter. Then there's the lighthouse, shot on location in the Lower Normandy town of Gatteville-le-Phare. And of course, no one in 1981 could resist having the big showdown take place in an abandoned factory. No one in 2007, either, for that matter.
The women of color. All the important female characters in Diva, not counting the hapless Nadia and a woman flic, are non-white and exquisitely beautiful. Cynthia Hawkins is the African-American goddess around whom everything revolves. Singer Wiggins Fernandez' only other screen appearance was as a featured performer in a filmed production of La Bohème. Teeny-bopper viet kieu Alba is the essence of Parisian multicultural chic, although her status as Gorodish's live-in muse is left open. Apparently, in Delacorta's series of Alba and Gorodish novels their relationship is nonsexual — the older white man is her protector, an arrangement echoed in the recent film Holly. Nothing nonsexual about Jules' Algerian streetwalker pal from Avenue Foch. Check out the statuary in her swanky flat, where he spends his take-home pay.
The fetishism. Not content with his pirate audiotape of her, Jules also nicks the diva's gown. Later, we see him using it as a scarf, and in a bit of role-playing he gets the Algerian prostitute to wear it. Whatever gets you through the night, mon pote. The impressionable young dude also seems to have a thing about motor oil. Let's not go there more than we have to.
The hoods. L'Antillais (Gérard Darmon) resembles nothing so much as an Andalusian dog strangler. His ice-pick-wielding buddy Le Curé is played by Dominique Pinon, who went on to everlasting cult fame in the films of Daniel Vigne, Roman Polanski, and especially Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. But Beineix also used his memorable physiognomy to nice effect in La lune dans le caniveau (US title: The Moon in the Gutter) and 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue).
As for Beineix, Diva opened doors that were later slammed shut. French critics were supposedly cool toward the film, but after its worldwide success the director was given a few more electric trains to play with, most notably the delirious and very musical Betty Blue. Nothing else clicked like Diva. Its frisson has to do with the ingredients discussed above, most of them visual. In that respect, it's an artifact of the '80s, inspired by the '50s, that nevertheless reflects a recognizable 2007 sensibility. So we could call it timeless.
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