Review: "Diva"

Dennis Harvey December 4, 2007

Peaking early is hard — ask any former child star. In the director’s seat, numerous names from Orson Welles (“Citizen Kane”) to Michael Cimino (“The Deer Hunter”) have suffered from failing to live up to fabled achievements of their professional youth. Sometimes the “sophomore slump” can last a lifetime.

Take the example of Jean-Jacques Beineix, whose 1982 first feature “Diva” — which gets newly re-released to local theatres this week — was THE arthouse success of the ’80s, at least until “Wings of Desire” came along to steal its upscale-foreign-language-date-movie crown. “Diva” was big. A lot of people seemed compelled to see it a lot of times — no rep-cinema calendar was complete without at least a couple days’ reprise. It was flamboyantly stylish in a New Wave kinda way (New Wave as in Spandau Ballet rather than Godard), youthful and energetic. It made opera seem cool, for chrissakes! No doubt there was a run on Parisian study-abroad programs for at least a few years there.

The inevitable question is, given that spectacular debut … er, whatever happened to Jean-Jacques Beineix?

He self-destructed, more or less. 1983’s “The Moon in the Gutter” was a horribly pretentious and silly melodrama art-directed within an inch of its life, making fools of actors like Gerard Depardieu, Victoria Abril and Nastassia Kinski. 1986’s “Betty Blue” was at least a commercial success, thanks to the constant sweat-drenched onscreen fornicating of its sensitive hero and titular crazy nymphomaniac girlfriend. But it was basically softcore with delusions of grandeur. 1992’s “IP5,” Yves Montand’s last film, was a horrible mix of flashiness and mawkishness. A couple other features didn’t merit exposure outside France.

Beineix retreated into documentaries, TV commercials, and painting, saying he’d been badly abused by the “class struggle” between his “maverick” self and critics. As a critic, I can at least confirm that sitting through “Moon in the Gutter” and “IP5” was indeed a form of struggle.

But still … “Diva”! Everyone has good memories of that. So, how does it hold up a quarter-century later, duly remastered and freshly subtitle-translated?

Pretty damn well — if not the revelation it once seemed to so many, “Diva” still has some magic to it. And the main reason it’s not relevatory anymore is because it was so widely imitated — in general aesthetic its influence on hipster filmmakers of the more populist variety worldwide went unmatched until Quentin Tarantino came along. Its constant visual invention, plot and narrative eccentricities were aped over and over again by filmmakers who lacked Beineix’s instinct for what works. How many bad later ’80s New Wave movies were pointlessly, affectedly filled with pseudo-hip non sequiturs? But “Diva’s” quirky art direction, sound design, and characters illuminate each other — not exactly in a “depthed” way, but as brilliant surfaces that delight in tandem.

The story involves Parisian moped messenger Jules (Frederic Andrei) besotted with an African American opera singer (Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez, whose actual fledgling opera career was both helped and hindered by the film’s massive exposure). He secretly tapes her in recital — she has never consented to being recorded, insisting that her medium must be a live one — and steals her gown from the dressing room for good measure.

This triggers a good deal of intrigue, exacerbated by Jules’ unknowing possession of another tape, one slipped into his shoulder bag by a prostitute just before she’s murdered. That cassette incriminates a crime boss, and brings colorful thugs down on Jules and his friends — the latter notably including dead-cool couple Alba (Thuy An Luu) and Gorodish (Richard Bohringer). His relationship with the diva develops, against odds, as the playful thriller elements build genuine excitement and tension.

Interestingly, “Diva’s” clever, complicated narrative (written by Beineix and Jean Van Hamme, based on a Delacorta novel) is driven primarily intellectual property theft — in an analog era. We now live in a world of YouTube, blogging, paparazzi who’ll gladly risk killing themselves or their quarry so you can share Britney Spears’ latest DUII (Driving Under the Influence of Idiocy) mishap seconds after it happens. Perhaps Diva’s most dated aspect is the notion that an acclaimed artist’s work could be so rarefied. These days, almost nothing of more than individual interest fails to spread virally throughout the digital world, with legal permission. Privacy is so 1982.

Otherwise, Beineix’s film remains surprisingly fresh. It’s a first film that promised so much — and if its creator failed to deliver subsequently, at least we can still be grateful he delivered this once, big-time.