For years my friend Mark has been pushing me to see ‘Diva’. Unless he was seriously mistaken, he wrote in an email: “You will… LoveWell, 41 years after its debut in France, “Diva” is back on a big screen — Film Forums — for a week, restored and ready to prove Mark right. l did love it. My fate was sealed the moment a poor lady stumbled off a train and stumbled through the station in a hip shirt dress. She wears no shoes, and Chantal Deruaz, the actor who plays her, collects everything possible for the chase that follows. It ends with her slumped on a Parisian street because a pucky, punky blonde – he looks a lot like Flea – threw an object in her back, like you might a card in a magic show. It looks like an ice pick. But it’s an awl. an awl†
Here’s direct evidence of this film’s ravishing, style-infused priorities. Now, a Hollywood type may have opted for a gun. But in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s mondo chic, the murder weapon is something you’d use to pierce leather. And the character dies in daylight, with just a hint of drama. The accordion, bass, drums and guitar on the soundtrack give her a dreamy rock ‘n’ roll micro funeral. This is about 12 minutes in, and I was already ecstatic. What really touched me, though, was this poor, glamorously doomed woman’s final act. She slips something into one of the mailbags on the main character’s motorcycle.
What’s wonderful about this moment is, in part, the blasé purpose it was planted with. But it’s not until a few scenes later that a series of jump cuts and explanatory dialogue reveal that this woman didn’t leave a bag of Coke or any other murder weapon. It’s just… a cassette tape. And because this film’s young protagonist, Jules (Frédéric Andréi), is so fervently consumed by his fandom for an American opera star, it takes him (and us) more than half the movie to figure out what’s on the tape. stands. And the woman who put it in his mailbag was confident enough that the postal system would get through for her. That’s what I’d been missing all these years: a film so peculiarly its own thing that it seems to invent itself, at the pinnacle of Beineix’ – or indeed everyone’s – cinematic imagination, and with an elongated belief in the redemptive potential of bureaucracy.
The obsession story begins the movie. Jules parks his postmobile and heads to one of those dilapidated teatros whose shabbiness gives a sort of glory, the sort of ruin whose functionality makes the present feel like the future. Indeed, Jules has come not only to see his beloved soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Fernandez) perform the grand aria of Alfredo Catalani’s “La Wally”, but also to covertly record her performance. So on the one hand you have this old-fashioned opera house in an almost abandoned art palace; and this man, on the other hand, uses state-of-the-art technology to extract the singing. This scene to me is the invention of 80s pop cinema.
CHUCK KLOSTERMAN BLOWS OUT his new book, “The Nineties,” makes a claim that this invention happens to the opening title sequence of Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo,” which opened in February 1980. It’s a reprehensible claim that really stuck with me. I belong to him. It’s just that Schrader film – his materialistic flash; his claim of consumer capitalism as the new carnality – is a bridge to the 1980s of the previous decade. “Diva” is the 80’s of Immaculate Conception. It feels like the 1970s were burned and a movie like this is what rose completely formed from their ashes.
It’s not like Sidney Lumet’s 1978 film of “The Wiz,” where New York’s landmarks, topography, and attitude are surreal, astonishing, yet soporific in itself. Beineix wants to get out of the malaise and anesthesia. The junky beauty of his France, the junky beauty – they are a shock. Jules lives in what looks like a parking garage. There he reclines in a beach chair and listens to his bootleg from Cynthia, as if he were in a Calgon swimming pool (that was a thing back then). And if one of the parties seeking that tape vandalizes his house, the vandalized result still looks fit for the Louvre.
The old thrives alongside the avant-garde and the cool: the shots of two menacing Taiwanese opera pirates in aviator colors taking in Cynthia and eventually much more. Jules befriends a pair of performers – Richard Bohringer and Thuy An Luu – who share a huge warehouse-like space where he cooks in goggles and she swings in a hammock and swings roller skates; this is what we would call ‘theatre in the inner city’. It makes sense here in the world, because in ‘Diva’ everything goes. The Phare de Gatteville lighthouse, in Normandy, is filmed frontally so that it looks like a dildo with stone testicles forever. An antique Citroen becomes a gripping plot device. Jules’ new moped also serves as a genre film gimmick that unites classicism and modernity.
The classic remains facilitating the modern. Give chase between that moped and a cop. I didn’t think I could find this film more captivating or impressive. Then these two go for it. The chase begins on the street, pious through the arcades along Rue de Rivoli, dives into the metro and ends, fitting for this film, at the foot of the Paris Opera. When Jules drives into the subway, most cops give up. He leaves his car and uses his feet. I haven’t seen anyone so desperate and unsuccessful in catching anything since Wile E. Coyote. You can imagine that Tom Cruise also refuses to give in. But after Jules got away, you’d never catch Cruise so double and breathless again.
An extraordinary aspect of this series is how many commuters seem to be really shocked when they are in the middle of it, to be jump out of the way† Another achievement? The fact that a cameraman, following the orders of cameraman Philippe Rousselot at the start of his innovative excellence, has to dodge commuters himself while keeping up with a motorbike and a sprinting cop – on stairs; steep! People are always making lists of the great movie chases. “Bullitt” and “The French Connection” and “Ronin” are reliably near the top. This one is rarely on there. Any list that doesn’t rank it high there, let alone one that omits it completely, must be a joke.
I don’t want to talk about this movie like it’s a plot-action plot. The story is not unimportant, but the peculiar genius at work devised a perfect balance between mood and mechanics. The story sails on every tide of Beineix’s absurdist passion. Many a beaten critic has admired how the film manages to be both a thriller and an art film, a furious example of the French mode tattooed on my heart: cinema du look. It is a style of visual acrobatics and theatrical sets; an approach that can act well or leave it (here, it’s definitely left). What I would add to that astonishment is the way this film almost never loses its moral, romantic, aesthetic and ethical priorities, how to connect them together. “Diva” is about two shots: the one in Jules’ mailbag and Cynthia’s. Each tape represents a crisis for a woman.
For Cynthia, Jules’ tape violates her entire creative philosophy. She does not believe in recordings of her work. And this man who claims to adore her may love everything she sings, but greedily. Those pilot pairs wearing those two Taiwanese gentlemen – they know Jules’ recording and want to make more of it, for money. This is an old American problem of commercial theft versus black artists’ ownership of their work. Beineix gives it an intercontinental remix.
If the film has a weakness, it’s that the romance is too forgiving for the ethics. Jules confesses – shooting the shot and stealing the silk dress Cynthia wears to do “La Wally” – and both times her offense dematerializes. Fernandez is a true opera singer from Philadelphia, brimming with wonder and good-natured hauteur. She seems swept up in a fairy tale of European acclaim. Cynthia Hawkins is, in fact, such a smelly African-American name that it seems especially strange that she is no longer upset about her predicament. It’s kind of artistic rape that the movie is too busy to be brilliant, too busy look-ing, to really sit by.
Of course, to be fair, this is also a movie about theft. There are as many ways to steal here as there are camera angles. In addition, the other shot warns of more imminent sexual danger. Nadia, the woman so flamboyantly murdered in the first minutes, dies because she has the latest health news from the Paris law enforcement officers. It’s a kind of advanced development that seems strange these days. Now she’d just spill her beans on Instagram or Twitter and you’d lose half the movie. And maybe – could be – she doesn’t get the awl.
But it’s a real testament to this film’s profound cultural absorption that it didn’t to feel as exciting to me as it must have been in 1982 when “Diva” opened in US theaters. This is like a lot of things now—original MTV, TV and magazine ads, the Hal Hartley and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry and the Wachowskis movies—when it wasn’t much different at the premiere. Beineix died in January and, apart from a small batch of documentaries, he didn’t make much like or like this; “The Moon in the Gutter” came two years later and his gigantic, undulating romantic epic “Betty Blue” three years after that. But Beineix’s legacy is a generation of artists who can turn dreams into all sorts of lawlessness. So no, until last week I had never seen “Diva” and yet its influence is so intense that, 60 seconds in, l was in a vat with Calgon, back in a memory I never actually had and pierced anyway. Awled, if you will. Grateful too. Thank you.