Nov 9, 2007

Diva: Tapes 'n Tapes

When the now-defunct United Artists Classics acquired the rights to Diva, Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981debut feature, do you suppose they had any idea of the tremendous success it would become – that a New York audience would take to it the way their Parisian counterparts did – or was it just dumb luck? The film opened in New York in April 1982 (about a year after its French debut) at the Plaza Theater to mixed reviews. The Times' Canby was all but dismissive of it ("empty though frightfully chic-looking"), but Kael ate it up, calling Beineix "Carol Reed reborn with a Mohawk haircut." Regardless, the film was a smash hit, with almost every show selling out.

I saw Diva for the first time in June of 82, waiting on line for over two hours with a bunch of other New Yorkers eager to see the film that was on everybody lips. Though I was only an impressionable high-school kid, I had seen a fair share of French films, but nothing at all like this. Sure, À bout de souffle was cool as fuck, but Diva was all about the here and now, and its mobylette-riding protagonist Jules became something of a role model for years to come. (I even bought a second-hand Malaguti. Yes, it's pathetic.) The film had a successful run in New York for over a year, and I must have seen it at least twenty times, dragging various friends (and girlfriends) whenever I could.

Diva is once again back in New York for its twenty-fifth anniversary, in a new print (with vastly improved subtitles) courtesy of Rialto. I went to see it a few weeks ago – on the morning of my birthday in fact – and I'll admit that I approached it with trepidation. Would the film hold up after all these years, or would it feel horribly dated? Would Jules, Gorodish and Alba still seem as cool now that my own mobylette years have long passed? The answer is a resounding...yes.

Based on one of Delacorta's Gorodish & Alba novels (which follow the adventures of a Zen-like French musician and his companion, a 14 year-old nymphet), Diva was the genesis of the Cinéma du look, that mini-movement in 80s French cinema that blended high-art with low, and favored the slick style of adverts and music videos, still in their infancy at the time. Though there's no denying that Diva is an incredibly stylized work, Beineix backs it up with enough substance to justify its gloss.

A tale of two tapes, as it were, the film finds our postal worker hero Jules (Frédéric Andréi) caught up in the underworld of both international music piracy and human trafficking. Living in an old garage amidst trashed luxury automobiles and pop-art murals, Jules' one passion is opera, particularly the voice of Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Fernandez), who has refused to commit her voice to record. Smuggling his Nagra reel-to-reel into the opera house, he makes a pristine recording that is of great interest to a couple of Taiwanese music pirates in black suits and mirror shades. A random encounter with a cassette-carrying escaped prostitute sets off a chain of events that includes several murders by awl, a suspenseful chase scene through Paris' streets and Metro, and a lesson in buttering bread.

What's most remarkable about watching Diva today is how much it is a product of its time. Today, Jules' bootleg tape would be available as a torrent within hours after the performance, and the prostitutes damning evidence would be a digital audio file attached to an email. There's something comforting in the limitations of the pre-Interweb all-analog world, where something physical, not virtual, is both the cause and solution to a series of problems.

What hasn't faded at all after all these years is that, beneath its multiple layers of intrigue and super-cool exterior, Diva is a film steeped in dreamy idealized cinematic romance. Jules' all-night dalliance with the diva still stands as one of the most romantic sequences ever, and their rainy dawn promenade through Paris to the Satie-esque theme by Vladimir Cosma will melt all but the hardest of hearts. (Jules' hesitant hand as he reaches to touch her shoulder is pure magic.)

At 17 I believed that Beineix's Paris – where a simple postman can have a platonic romance with an opera star, befriend a roller-skating thieving Vietnamese beauty, be chased by trench coat wearing assassins, and be rescued by a Gitanes-smoking, multiple Citroën Traction Avant owning cool guy – truly existed. Today I consider Diva to be a perfect bit of romantic escapist fantasy. Unlike many films from the 80s, Diva has only improved with age, and it's easy to see why the film had such long legs during its initial run. If you've never seen it, or haven't revisited it in years, don't miss this opportunity.

Diva is currently playing at Film Forum in New York. Afterwards, it is rolling out to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland etc. See Rialto's site for complete details.

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