'Diva': An Intoxicating Snapshot of Cool in '80s Paris
A Harbinger of Hip In Today's World

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

It's astonishing how many people remember the French opera-meets-gangster flick "Diva" as one of the coolest movies they've ever seen. Everyone, including the criminals, in this luxurious, punk version of a typical French crime film was hipper than you were. They lived in lofts, they had underage girlfriends, they rode around a seedy, crumbling Paris on minibikes and seduced glamorous American opera stars. It was 1981, and America was settling in for a little '50s redux under the benevolent watch of Grandpa Reagan, but in filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix's Paris, cool was undergoing one of its periodic, generational mutations. It was less about the sex of the '60s or the political fervor of the '70s. It was becoming more a matter of idiosyncratic individualism, quirkiness, a world of millions of coexisting, self-sufficient, individual "cools," all cool with one another.

The plot of "Diva" is hardly worth summarizing, which would in any case spoil the still exciting twists and turns and diminish the real importance of the movie as a snapshot, and a very prescient one, of changes in the zeitgeist. The story involves two tape recordings, one of which violates the resolution of a beautiful opera star never to record her voice, another that could unmask a dastardly public official who has been running a prostitution ring. The pursuit of these tapes, by criminals straight out of the cinematic world of Godard, leads to several chase sequences that critics at the time considered among the most exciting they'd ever seen. Those scenes still have power today, though a quarter-century of special effects has blunted their thrills by comparison.

The real power of "Diva," which is being re-released for a one-week run in Washington, is its depiction -- in a charmingly primitive way -- of the world we now live in. The Sony Walkman, offering music lovers their own personal bubble of sound, had been introduced in Japan two years before and was about to begin a huge cultural remake of how we relate to music. The same year, the first commercial cellphone network was launched (also in Japan).

Living in lofts had been around for years, but it was about to become fashionable among people who aspired to bohemian cred, not just among artists who manifestly had the cred and needed the work space. Racial diversity and sexual amorphousness were also becoming cool, at least in a high-fashion sense, in a way that is still very much with us.

That is the world that young Jules, played by the boyish and wide-eyed Frédéric Andréi, must negotiate to stay alive and pursue his dream, some kind of union with American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), whose beauty and diva glamour anticipate the great age of the African American sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle in the 1980s.

If the car phones in this film are antiquated, and while you may need to explain to younger viewers what a reel-to-reel tape recorder is, the character types sketched by Beineix (after a novel by Daniel Odier) remain very much contemporary. Jules is a lonely puppy dog of a young man but rich in his own interior life, much of which is devoted to opera.

Hawkins is a celebrity isolated from those around her by her own talent, high principles and imperiousness. A young Vietnamese woman named Alba (played by Thuy An Luu, who was said to be 15 years old) is all surface play and silliness, providing an endless prattle of poetic nonsense and bit of dangerous sexual tension. She is the classic slacker chic, cute, innocent, sexually knowing, utterly blase in complicated webs of sexual and personal intrigue.

In 1981, the film's philosophical concerns seemed thoroughly well processed through the tortuous machine of French post-structuralism. There was a fashionable preoccupation with what constituted an original, as opposed to a copy or reproduction, and anxiety about the importance of direct, face-to-face communication (is it really more truthful than written language?). No system of thought seemed complete and self-sufficient; there was also something extra, or absent, something purloined or misplaced that threatened to undermine stability. It was also chic to scramble the categories of high and low, to mix and match your own take on art and music through sampling, with blithe regard to the old categories and hierarchies.

A movie that centers on tape recordings -- one of opera, another a sordid tale of sexploitation -- passing from hand to hand through an underworld of anomie, pursued by Taiwanese gangsters intent on the crass commercialization of high culture? What more could one ask for? Add to it a knowing sensibility about French film history and a plot line that was intentionally cliched, and you had one very cool film.

More than a quarter-century later, "Diva" seems the very opposite of cool. It seems, well, sweet. The love affair between Jules and Cynthia is consummated with a pre-dawn walk and a gentle hand on the shoulder. The passion for music, for a particular singer singing a particular song, is untainted by the ennui of too many channels, too many recordings, too many choices. The grittiness of Beineix's Paris, which seemed so edgy 27 years ago, is now just another nostalgic view of Paris, to be put alongside all the other imaginary Parises, from Atget to Truffaut to "Amelie."

Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, who no doubt introduced at least a few people to opera through her rendition of a haunting aria by Alfredo Catalani, never really had much of an operatic career. After a few more roles, the charmingly vacant Thuy An Luu disappeared from the scene. Beineix never really had a bigger success than "Diva," at least in this country. And Nicholas Sarkozy, who jogs and dates supermodels, is now running France. But "Diva," as a lifestyle, a fantasy, a model for alienation and solipsism and eccentricity, has gone deep into all of us.

Diva (118 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R and contains nudity, violence and profanity. In French with English subtitles.

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