Jean-Jacques Beineix’s renowned Diva will be available as a new 35 mm print and subtitle translation for its twenty-fifth U.S. anniversary. A slow starter in 1981-82 but picking up steady steam to arthouse phenomenon, four Césars, co-paternity of France’s birth of the cool anti-realistic Cinéma de look, and raves from critics, the 117 minutes has been styled “comedy,” “romance,” “mystery,” “thriller” and “policier,” all of which are in measure correct and to which may be added “high culture,” “pop” and “kitsch.”
In the best tradition of noir, the Beineix-Jean Van Hamme screenplay, from one of four sexy underworld novels by Delacorta (Daniel Odier), is then and now overlookably confusing: Lolita-ish Alba (Thuy An Luu, whose ethnicity prompted a character change from the original North African) is, depending on source, twelve, thirteen, fourteen or fifteen, while the blackmailing music-tape pirates are Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, Japanese or Taiwanese.
Some have felt that sexy but sexless Alba’s older boyfriend-slash-mentor Serge Gogodish (Richard Bohringer) is too controlling as an unfair Wizard of Oz-slash-god from the machine, that the confusion of tapes (and characters and audience) is trite, that a private “Ave Maria” moment is bathetic. No matter. Gorodish’s place, neon blues against black and enormous enough for Alba (which means “dawn” in poetry) to skate around in; his multiple classic white Citroëns, symmetrical phallic “mystic castle,” and bathing and cooking habits, all are part and parcel of the joy of the whole exuberant suspension of laws of reality, glorying in what cinema can do (but seldom does anymore).
Visually, imagine a dream disco drive-in with roller-skated majorette car hops, not only with the above décor but also in the painted walls and floor of skinny mail-carrier hero Jules’s (Frédéric Andrei) pad, a garage loft decorated with wrecked cars including a Rolls, quality sound equipment, a collection of 33 rpm record albums, and a Munich 8 Oktober 20 poster advertising diva Cynthia Hawkins (the sole film appearance of African-American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), to which performance (among others) super-fan Jules round-tripped fourteen hundred kilometers on his Mobylette.
The letter carrier attends a Paris recital given by his idol, where, since on artistic principles the singer has always refused any recording offers, he clandestinely captures her aria on his Nagra 5. One row behind, two sun-glassed Asians have observed the illegal taping, but no one sees when, after an autograph from the star, he leaves with her hanging white gown, draped round his neck like a World War One pilot’s scarf.
Though violating the artist’s wishes, Jules’s purpose is entirely personal and aesthetic, to be able to enjoy the hallowed voice on home reel-to-reel at all times, a pleasure he can soon share with visiting Alba, who steals everything from records to Rolexes. The seeds of trouble are planted at the following day, when prostitute Nadia Kalonski (Chantal Deruaz) arrives to meet policewoman Paula (Anny Romand) through suspicious informer Krantz (Jean-Jacques Moreau). Barefoot for no reason, she is the mistress of a French connection crime boss dealing drugs and prostitution from Africa. Aware that escape from her situation is hopeless, that the gangster has marked her for death, she carries a cassette confession in which names are named: she will go to her grave, he to the guillotine. Goons Caribbean (Gérard Darmon) and Priest (Dominique Pinon) wait outside the station to intercept and kill her with the latter’s deadly awls--“he gave his awl”-- so she desperately drops her tape into a pouch on Jules’s handy motorbike.
The ensuing comedy of errors includes the obligatory extended chase -- here a moped and a flic in his car and then on foot -- and involves the unsuspecting Jules, Caribbean (who fronts for the crime kingpin) and Priest, the police under a doubting -- and double -- Captain Jean Saporta (Jacques Fabbri), recording pirates who bluff through Hawkins’ manager Weinstadt (Roland Bertin), and Gorodish and Alba.
The occasionally overkill plot is still a plus, Beineix’s “pleasure of surprise that I had as a kid.” That part is held together by the relationship between the eighteen-year-old fan and the thirty-two-year-old opera singer, expected but imaginatively removed from hackneyed form and ending just right at “I never heard myself sing.”
The meat, however, what makes Diva memorable, is the sheer fun, fun, fun of the whole, with its sly homage to directors, styles and genres, the colors of Philippe Rousselot’s camera and production-design values of Tennessee-Parisian Hilton McConnico, the opera-jazzy score, the quirks and tics and an umbrella. Sit back, forget the world and its problems, and take in and be taken in by this pre-magic realism cinema magic, for, self-consciously, “this fake world is a reality, our daily life . . . of décors.”