Hard to believe that Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva could have gotten heavily panned back when it was first released. Watching the gorgeously remastered Meridian Collection DVD of the film that was released last year following its twenty-fifth anniversary, it's even harder to see how the movie's first reviewers so missed the point. "Empty, though frightfully chic-looking," Vincent Canby once sneered, and while the film still looks "frightfully" glossy thanks to its popping visuals, first-time director Beineix's blend of pulp and youthful romanticism proves anything but empty. An examination of enthusiastic aestheticism by a director unafraid to put his own adolescent passions for moviemaking up front for all to see, Diva remains vital even after more than two decades of inferior imitators.
The movie concerns a young Parisian postman named Jules (Frederic Andrei), who worships Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhemina Wiggins Fernandez), a recording-shy Afro-American soprano who is on the verge of aging out of her diva status. (She's 32, we're told.) At a performance of "La Wally," Jules illegally records the diva's performance, an act that is witnessed by two shady Taiwanese businessmen who in the first of the film's many patent contrivances happen to be seated right behind our hero. In addition to stealing her performance, Jules also swipes the gown that Cynthia was wearing on-stage. Back in his garage loft, he holds the garment to his face while playing back the singer's performance on his state of the art reel-to-reel tape player. Later he'll take the dress to a black prostitute and have her wear it. "You seem a little nutty," she says.
There's a definite element of creepiness to the innocent-faced Jules' actions, and the movie doesn't shy away from it. Unfortunately for our hero, fate pulls him into an even more sinister plot. A tape describing the drug and prostitution connections of the city's homicide police chief winds up in the bag of his moped, and poor clueless Jules' attempts to get close to Cynthia are regularly thwarted by pursuing cops and a duo of menacing henchmen. This leads to the film's two most suspenseful scenes: an exuberant chase where our hero flees a running cop by riding his motorbike down into the Paris Metro and a sweat-drenched sequence where our wounded hero is relentlessly pursued by the nihilistic, ice pick wielding thug Priest (Dominique Pinon, perhaps best known to American audiences for his role in Amelie) through a bowling alley arcade.
Jules' rescue comes at the hands of a mysterious pair, Goradish (Richard Behringer) and Vietnamese nymphette Alba (Thuy Au Luu). Both characters figure prominently in a series of mystery/caper novels by the Swiss novelist "Delacorta" (of which Diva was the first), though in the film we're not really given much background information about them. Jules meets Alba when he spies her shoplifting a jazz elpee from a record store (making her a kindred spirit perhaps), though we quickly learn that she's swiped it for Goradish, who's going through a "cool phase." This we see when Goradish gives Jules an utterly straight-faced lecture on the Zen of spreading butter over French bread.
Diva's crime plots are connected as sturdily as a house made out of popsicle sticks, but its characters and colorful sense of place are so strong that you readily accept each outlandish coincidence. Jules' obsessive devotion to his diva is so heartfelt that even at his most stalker-ish, he remains appealing. "Who do you think I am? The Beatles?" Cynthia asks, after the postman returns her gown to her. She's simultaneously irritated and charmed by his fannishness: "You know music too well," she declares, and she says this as both criticism and a compliment.
In contrast, Pinon's Priest, the nihilistic skinhead killer, is presented as Jules' polar opposite. Everything he sees is subject to his sneering disdain, which ultimately leads his cohort to wryly observe, "You don't like much, do you?" The killer is always seen wearing an earpiece, which he presses more firmly into his ear whenever he's about to do something dire. We think he's listening to something hard-edged and punk, but, in one of the movie's best jokes, we ultimately learn otherwise.
For years, lovers of this movie have had to make due with an inferior Anchor Bay DVD with a washed out, occasionally scratchy look. The Meridian Collection corrects this flaw with a crisply re-mastered Dolby monaural soundtrack and a digital transfer overseen by the director. You can immediately see the difference in the movie's opening sequence: Cynthia's swiped concert performance. Standing on the stage of a decaying Paris theatre, the camera worshipfully circling her as she sings from "La Wally," it's a moment that has to work pristinely in order to pull us opera-phobes into Jules' world, and the new Meridian disc does just that.
As bonus feature, the disc includes an extensive series of interviews conducted with cast and crewmembers by Phil Powie, author of a book on Jean-Jacques Beineix. The only complaint I have about the feature is the fact that only one dubbed voice is used so that when more than one person is in a segment — as when Pinon and actress Anny Romand are interviewed by Powie — it can get initially confusing as to who is actually speaking. Still, Powie's interviews are themselves quite thoughtful, covering practically every aspect of what proved to be a landmark film.
I first saw Diva as a date movie in a Champaign Illinois art house that has since long closed. My soon-to-be wife and I both fell in love with the flick, though, characteristically, this happened during two different scenes. For me, it was a moment when Priest ice picks an informer as the guy is shilling at a carnival wheel of fortune — grabbing a ceramic Beethoven bust from the dead man's hand, he delivers one of his signature statements ("I don't like Beethoven.") before dropping the bust to the ground. For my wife, it was a lushly romantic sequence where Jules and Cynthia wordlessly stroll through a Paris park, surrounded by fountains, Vladimir Cosma's evocative piano theme playing on the soundtrack. The latter scene ends on a chaste note, which is just the way it should. Jules may be "a little nutty," but in the end he knows it's still all about the music.