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by Jay Seaver

"Child of noir and the new wave."
5 stars

How things can change. The advertising around the re-release of "Diva" includes examples of how, when this movie first appeared, its style was compared to MTV, and it was clear that this was no bad thing. Today, critics likely wouldn't use those words as a compliment, but the intent behind the words still holds up: It's still eye-catching and fast-paced, brimming with youthful energy.

Our young protagonist is Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a mail carrier whose true passion is music. As the film starts, he's sneaking a rather large reel-to-reel tape recorder into a recital hall where American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) is performing. Hawkins doesn't believe in recording music, so she would regard this as a much greater theft than the dress Jules swipes from the dressing room. Jules isn't looking to sell it - likely disappointing to the Taiwanese gangsters who observe him recording it - he just wants it for his own use, and maybe to impress Alba (Thuy An Luu), a girl he spots shoplifting in his favorite record shop. Ah, but there's another tape, a cassette dropped into Jules's satchel by a passing woman, one which contains the identity of the man behind the Paris drug and flesh trade - both the cops and the local gangsters would like to get their hands on that!

At times, Diva plays like the offspring of film noir and the New Wave. Jules finds himself besieged on all sides by factions wanting something in his possession and willing to kill for it, with even the police coming across as far from safe, but he also has chances to sit around funky lofts with Alba to talk about music, or to engage in activities somewhere between flirtation and romance with both Alba and Cynthia. Alba and her apparent boyfriend, Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), seem pretty open-minded about this, which is good, because they'll both wind up involved in the thriller side of the story by the time its over. Another way of looking at it is that Diva is the early prototype for the flood of pop-crime movies that came a decade and a half later in response to Quentin Tarantino's success; the music obsessed over is opera and jazz, and the tone is youthful sincerity rather than something more showily self-referential.

This movie may not be as slick as its more recent brethren, but even MTV was frequently a makeshift work-in-progress back in the early 1980s. Screenwriter/director Jean-Jacques Beineix throws a lot of story at us early on, but does a reasonable job of juggling the various plot threads. Not a perfect job - this is his first feature, and I confess to scratching my head at one point, not quite sure who had tossed Jules's loft. Occasional stumbles aside, it's a very well-balanced film, with the mystery broken by comic relief that never gets too jokey, and a deft way about slipping between art talk and action.

The action sequences are memorable without being overly grandiose. The murder which starts the dominoes falling, for instance, starts with a simple indication that something is not as it should be - a woman getting off the Metro without her shoes - before quickly cranking the suspense up, intersecting three of the groups, and then being over as quickly as it began. There's a nifty chase with Jules steering his moped onto the Metro, and a quality standoff in Jules's darkened loft. Beineix has a knack for shooting the action clearly and making it exciting without falling too much in love with it, so it's still a blow when people are injured or killed, and we're still able to share Jules's horror when he eventually finds and listens to the second tape.

Part of what works so well about that is that Frédéric Andréi isn't cast from the later action-hero mold; he's a young guy who is thoroughly over his head in most of these situations. He's appealing for that, and his simple, pure devotion to things like art, music, and beauty. His pairing with Cynthia is fun; Ms. Hawkins is played by Wilhelmenia Fernandez in her only screen role, but she's as natural in the character as she must have been on stage, a tremendous talent whose commitment to a certain principle is sabotaging her career. The characters played by Richard Bohringer and Thuy An Luu are actually the main characters in the series of novels that includes Diva, and there is something cool and larger than life about Borodish, though Bohringer plays him as something well short of a pulp character. The folks in the smaller roles are good, too - notably Anny Romand as one of the detectives, Jacques Fabbri as her boss, and Dominique Pinon in an early role as one of the gangsters.

Twenty-five years or so on, with a new print making the rounds, "Diva" is still an exciting adventure. In some ways, it's a little quaint, but there is something a little wonderful about how it allows its worlds of gritty action and beautiful music to co-exist without self-consciousness or irony.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17297&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/20/08 11:59:10
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User Comments

8/18/10 brian Miraculously makes opera bearable for awhile. The singer, though, is clearly no actress. 4 stars
6/28/08 AnnieG One of my favorite films, the ultimate of a French atmosphere film. 5 stars
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  23-Apr-1982 (R)
  DVD: 12-Jun-2001

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