Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981)

It’s one of the most preposterous plots – or rather, amalgamation of many plots – like, ever…almost as preposterous as what Beneix believed French gangsters and Taiwanese bootleggers would consider to be fashionable looks and outfits back in 1981 .  A chief of police running a sex-slave ring, his goons after a prostitute and her tape that incriminates him, the bootleggers after another tape of a famed, and stubborn, opera diva whose voice has never been recorded before, the cops after the goons, the rich non-conformist after both tapes and wads of money and god knows what else…oh, and the geeky little mail courier, obsessed with the diva, whose illegally recording her concert and then stealing her luminous gown and having that prostitute’s tape unknowingly dropped into his mail bag sets off a chain reaction of all that nonsense I just spewed.  More than once I got completely lost and had to pause the movie and skim the plot description on wikipedia to get my bearings before pressing play again, and some of the twists and turns that this labyrinthine story takes are so unlikely, so ridiculous, that I learned fairly quickly to avoid falling into my usual trap of judging a movie on how “real” it is, how much verisimilitude it has, and just take this for what it is: a hyper-stylized thriller, not pretending to be anything other than overly-stylish with the outlandish sets (that young courier lives in an immense ‘loft’ filled with wrecked cars.  It looks cool, so I’ll go with it…) and costumes (Dominique Pinon as the skinheaded, headphone-wearing, huge sunglasses-sporting thug known only as “Le curé” takes the cake…), twists and coincidences that make suspension of disbelief an outright requirement to getting anything out of this movie, and characters and relationships that are…incredibly satisfying.  Yes, as ridiculous as “Diva” can get, its twisting, meandering story is presented in such an intelligent and unpredictable way that its world feels completely alive, so fully realized, even if it is, however based on circa-1981 Paris, different from the real-real world in an aesthetic sense.

Even though I had no idea who these Taiwanese music bootleggers were for the duration of the film – all I saw were ridiculously-dressed Asians regarding our courier hero from afar in their cars until wikipedia made me see the light – and I was trying to make heads and tails with who wanted which tape and who wanted who dead, when it was all over, I spent the rest of that night and practically all of next day putting the pieces together in my head.  The story’s ridiculous and convoluted, but rich in detail, both visually and otherwise (notice how the camera glides majestically in the first concert scene, regarding the opera diva with the same obsessive devotion as the courier), to the point that it’s just as much fun to think about the film post-viewing than during the viewing itself.  It’s just a fun thriller, convoluted and complex yet all fitting together by the time the closing credits roll in subtle and rather ingenious ways, and highlighted by one of the best and most exciting chases I’ve seen in any movie (“Diva” perfected the motorcyclist (moped-ist to be exact…) being chased through the metro and indoor shopping areas years before “The Dark Knight.”  Think the iconic subway chase from “Le Samourai,” but with a moped thrown in).  And when things got too convoluted, I always had the startlingly simple story of the courier Jules and his muse, the angelically-voiced Cynthia Hawkins, to fall back on.  Their relationship is a fascinating one that starts out predictably in a star-basically-patting-the-adoring-fan-on-the-head kind of way, and then grows into something deeper in unexpected yet natural-feeling and even sweet ways, namely thanks to, ironically, the inexperience of the two actors, Frédéric Andréi and the professional opera singer Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez.  It’s romantic, sure, but somehow not in that hokey movie kind of way – the montage of the two of them walking through a rainy Paris, culminating in the boy daring to put his hand on the star singer’s shoulder, is wonderful.  Even as bootleggers and gangsters are, unbeknownst to Jules, after his tapes and his blood, the simple relationship between the two is endearing and real (by comparison to the outlandishness of everything around it, at least…).  There’s no way that a mere mailman with a love for opera can be able to get a woman as beautiful and melodiously-voiced as Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez to fall for him, but for some reason, it just works, and you want it to work.  You care for these characters, and there’s actually something more at stake than some silly tapes or some big bad secret, so that this is much more than just ‘”Enemy of the State” but good.’  Between goons throwing knives into the backs of prostitutes and degenerates, car chases, good guys and bad guys falling down elevator shafts and good ol’ police procedural material, a moped-riding boy and his tape recorder wins the affections of a superstar – perhaps the unlikeliest in two hours’ worth of unlikely developments, but surely the one that’s the most satisfying.

…But wait, I haven’t even mentioned Gorodish and Alba!  In a film chock-full of fascinating, if not downright cartoonish, characters, the uber-Bohemian Gorodish and his Vietnamese lackey Alba are by far the most fascinating.  Hell, they might be two of the most enigmatic and downright interesting film characters I’ve ever seen, not because of depth, of which they have little, but because of the downright mysteriousness of how they’re presented.  I mean for god’s sake, just look at where they live!  An immense, dark loft seemingly furnished only with a couch, a bizarre lava lamp, and a stereo, where Gorodish lounges around all day in Calvin Klein poses while Alba does her nymphette thing…who lives like that?!?!  What the hell does this Gorodish guy do, at least when he isn’t manipulating both gangsters and bootleggers against each other for his own monetary benefit Yojimbo-style (and for that matter, how does he suddenly have the amazing cunning and smarts to pull all that off, when we’re introduced to him as a hyper-stylish couch potato?)  Do he and Alba sleep together?  What’s with that portfolio of naked pictures that Alba carries around?  Does Gorodish ever leave that dungeon of his in his everyday life?  Does she (does he let her?)?  “Diva” is based on one of a series of books in which Gorodish and Alba are the main characters, so it’d make sense that despite how captivating the story of Jules and Cynthia, the film’s so-called ‘main characters’, may be, it’s this enigmatic recluse and his exotic girl-pet who are the film’s ambiguous, and alluring, center.  They’re the posterchildren of this film’s almost exclusive reliance on striking, edgy imagery rather than deep, or even logical, characters or dialogue or plot.  On any other day in any other movie Gorodish and Alba should be laughable caricatures, cartoon characters in that cartoonish loft.  But just as a chase scene with cheesy music and a thug wearing an unfathomably cheesy outfit just feels cool for some reason, Gorodish and Alba aren’t laughable caricatures, they’re mysterious enigmas, right at home in “Diva”‘s world, a world not too different from our own, and not exactly the same…just subtly odd enough where an independently wealthy hermit and his beautiful Salacious Crumb, and a shy courier and the opera star whose budding relationship feels unexpectedly natural, and all the cops and robbers in-between, can co-exist.  This movie, while quite clearly an orgy of visual awesomeness, was a mess, but one I was all too happy to try to piece together.


1 comment so far

  1. bluecotton on

    saw this movie, very cool
    i am searching for a scene with woody allen in restaurant with a girl, where he tries to pay at the end with a hand full of small coins.

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