Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Video Shelf: DIVA

OK, long ago I promised my next Video Shelf post would be about Fritz Lang. Well, yeah, I've dragged my feet about that, but then news came out that a complete cut of METROPOLIS had been found and would be made available, so what the heck, I'm going to delay that and instead do one of my favorite films of all time, Jean-Jacques Beineix's DIVA.

DIVA, which came out in '81, was significant for me because it was my first exposure to foreign film (aside from Godzilla and Hercules films seen on Saturday afternoons). I was in high school, and it played on Maryland Public TV, dubbed, but still a thrill. It was an introduction to an entirely new worldview, and fueled the dreams of the kind of life I wanted to live.

DIVA, based on a novel by "Delacorta" (really Daniel Odier), has two converging plots. One is about opera diva Cynthia Hawkins (real-life opera singer Wilhelmina Wiggins-Fernandez) who refuses to make recordings. One night, she gives a grand performance at a concert, and is secretly taped by a lovestruck fan, Jules (Frederic Andrei), a postman. He manages to meet her in her dressing room, and unnoticed, impulsively steals her gown. Meanwhile, a prostitute, Nadia, is running away from a pair of hired killers, and slips a cassette tape into Jules' mailbag, a tape that names police detective Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) as the real head of Paris' vice rings. The gangsters manage to figure out Jules has the tape, and meanwhile, Taiwanese record pirates, who saw that Jules was taping the concert, are after him for the recording. Jules has a chance meeting with sexy young shoplifter Alba (Thuy An Luu), and then meets her middle-aged boyfriend, con artist Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), who become his guardian angels.

What follows is a madcap adventure full of cross and doublecross and triplecross, and one of the most exciting chase scenes ever filmed.

But the action isn't the only feature. It's also a very picturesque and romantic film. It's a vision of Paris that in the early 80s was very edgy, but today is sweetly nostalgic: of artists and bohemians living in industrial lofts and cramped apartments, everyone free to have their own obsessions and eccentricities, free to find their own cool, and as one critic said, "everyone cool with everyone else's cool." There's disreputable streets and sleazy clubs, but also gorgeous concert halls, opera houses, and one very memorable scene, Cynthia and Jules (by now with a budding romance) taking a predawn walk through Paris' monuments...

As a lonely, alienated teenager, a young gay man not yet at terms with it, let alone out of the closet, going to a rough-and-tumble high school in a western Maryland farming community, DIVA was a symbol of how I wanted to live, and my head was often full of images of running away to Paris, or New York, or some other great city to live a life of eccentricity and adventure.

I sacrificed some of that after college, working at a corporate job for several years after college, but I did manage to move to Washington, and while life hasn't quite turned out the way I hoped, I realize that in many ways, I am the cool eccentric bohemian I'd hoped to become, although I don't have a nifty loft (of course, those have all been snapped up by the yuppies and are outside the grasp of the impecunious sorts like myself) or the dashing adventures I'd hoped for (there's still time, I'm not too old yet!). I did manage a French-class trip to Paris in high school, and I still dream of going back. Paris has always been a sort of spiritual home for me, and let's be honest, the alternate universe that Dust & Corruption inhabits is very much like early 20th-century Paris. (With frequent excursions to London and Monte Carlo....)

DIVA has flash and style to spare; when it first came out, it was criticized for being TOO stylish, but age has been kind to it and it compares favorably to all-flash-no-substance films that come out today. Its edginess has been blunted by time, however, and now it's sweetly nostalgic.

But still, a film that celebrates passion and art, where love triumphs and evil is defeated, and that successfully balances plot AND artistry, is something for D&C fans to watch and cherish. Rent it, buy it, gather your friends together and pop some champagne corks. This is required viewing.

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