Deep New Wave

  • by David Lamble
  • Monday December 3, 2007
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Jules (Frederic Andrei) in Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva spends his days scooting his moped through Paris traffic delivering pensions to widows. By night, Jules lives large: attending the opera, drinking in a seldom-performed aria, secretly taping the performance, and later that night luxuriating in a special command encore available only to him.

Without quite intending to, Jules and his precious Nagra (a Swiss-made tape recorder often used to capture movie sound) have upset the natural order of things, and pretty soon, the obsessive boy will be running for his life: fleeing crooked cops and good cops, pimps, drug dealers, murderers, and most dangerous of all, a sinister pair of Taiwanese record pirates who will stop at nothing to glom onto the only recording by the reclusive African American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (the radiantly beautiful Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez).

Hawkins is technically the diva of the title — her astonishing rendition of the haunting first-act aria from Alfredo Catalani's opera La Wally reverberates throughout the film until lovers are reunited in a memorable embrace in an empty theatre — but it can be argued that virtually all the main players qualify for diva status. That's including Jules himself; Saporta (Jacques Fabbri), the insanely corrupt chief homicide cop, who has his fingers in all the good vice in town; The Priest (Dominique Pinon), a venomous, knife-wielding thug who sports wraparound sunglasses at Midnight, and who marches to his own diabolical beat (an earphone channeling a pre-iPod device); and Diva 's own Nick and Nora Charles: the Bogey-like Gorodish  (Richard Bohringer) and his teenage, shoplifting playmate Alba (Thuy An Luu), who uses a portfolio of naked pictures of herself to divert horny record clerks from her knack of swiping precious discs as presents for her man.

Diva's denizens are a uniquely too-cool-for-school crowd who value aesthetic satisfaction almost above life itself. Jules inhabits a loft that doubles as his fantasy soundstage, a kind of pop cemetery decorated with junked luxury cars and murals of dead movie stars. Gorodish, the hero of the movie (Pauline Kael called him "a punkers' deus ex machina"), inhabits a train-station-sized space in which he sits puffing on Cubans, completing jigsaw puzzles, taking baths, and waiting for Alba to skate in with her latest purloined treasure. Gorodish instructs Jules on the lost art of swathing a baguette in butter: "the Zen of toast."

In Casablanca, Bergman reminds Bogart that "we'll always have Paris." For a 1982 San Francisco movie crowd, Diva became our Paris. Opening the first week in June at the Clay, Diva inhabited a pre-video universe where a cool movie could only be sampled on a big screen, and where a truly cool movie would do a wave through a circuit of repertory palaces: the old Red Vic, the Roxie, the Castro, the York, the Parkside.

Just as Diva created a mini-movement, copping a Cesar at Cannes and launching the early 80s' Cinema du look, his Jules is a worthy successor to Truffaut's Antoine Doinel, a boy who becomes a man by appropriating anything that pleases him. Without Jules and his motorbikes, Diva is three movies needing an Amores Perros -style car crash to join them together. Jules outdistances the cops in a physics-defying moped zap through the Paris Metro, ditching the police only to be pursued by deadlier prey through an all-night arcade. The wounded boy's blood is smeared across the pinball emporium's glass petitions, blending with the spray of flashing lights and the colorful attire of pimps, hookers and runaways.

Instead of dying in a phone booth, Jules is talked through his blood loss-induced swoon by a Vietnamese princess who recalls a fairy tale that lands him in an enchanted castle by the sea. Diva makes only pop sense, inhabiting a cartoon dream logic that allows us to believe that a paranoid, reclusive singer will invite him (and, by default, us) to have a scalding hot bath while she pleads with press critics not to imprison the fleeting magic of an aria on a plastic disc. Diva hasn't dated a moment, stylistically or topically, for the movie is, in many ways, a sublimely entertaining debate on the legality and morality of trying to capture the artistic moment in a bottle.

Diva lives again (perhaps for only a week) at the Lumiere, prior to a 25th-anniversary DVD release.