The first time I saw Diva, I was about the same age as Jules, the French mailman, opera enthusiast, and thief who is its hero. Most likely I saw it at the intimate and old-fashioned Brattle Theater in Harvard Square, one of the places I miss most about Cambridge. Diva is a highly romantic movie, steeped in sexuality and rife with improbable characters and plot twists—a young person’s movie, one would think—and in fact it is the first feature by Jean-Jacques Beineix, who was thirty-four when he directed it.
I’ve seen Diva a couple of times since then and enjoyed it each time, but I hadn’t seen it for a number of years before I watched it on DVD last month, first reading the novel by “Delacorta” (the pen name of the Swiss author Daniel Odier), on which it’s based. And I was pleased to find that it is still captivating.
The plot of the movie concerns two audiotapes. The first is secretly made by Jules at a performance by Cynthia Hawkins, the black American diva played by the soprano Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez. In the novel she is singing Schubert lieder, but in the film we hear a haunting aria from Catalani’s opera La Wally, sung with an unearthly swelling tone that brings tears to Jules’s eyes. He goes backstage to meet the star, and after an awkward but affecting chat he sees her silvery gown hanging on a hook and steals it.
Meanwhile two cops are waiting for an informant, an ex-prostitute under the thumb of the mob, who comes stumbling through the crowd in her bare feet. Two thugs spot her, and the more depraved-looking of the two, a shaven-headed gnome with wraparound sunglasses, hurls an icepick into her back, leaving her to die on the pavement. (Can you actually throw an icepick in such a way? I doubt it, but one cannot enjoy Diva without skimming over details like this.)
You might be expecting the two tapes to get mixed up, but the film is not so predictable. Jules’s tape, for one thing, is on a reel, while the ex-prostitute’s is a cassette. But before long two sinister Taiwanese men are stalking Jules for the Cynthia Hawkins tape (she has never allowed herself to be recorded) and the two thugs are after him for the cassette, which incriminates their boss.
I haven’t even gotten to the two characters who, at least in the novel, are considered the protagonists. In the movie, Serge Gorodish is a lean, black-stubbled man who lives in a vast empty room where he passes the time gazing at a wave machine or smoking a cigar while contemplatively soaking in his tub. With him lives Alba, a pubescent Vietnamese nymphet whose transparent pink dress is like a candy wrapper.
When Alba comes home late and Gorodish snaps at her from his bathtub, we learn that he once picked her up from a roadside and rescued her from the Vietcong. (In the novel, Alba is a blonde girl from the French countryside, and her father’s willingness to let her live in Paris with her new guardian is even more improbable than the events of the movie.)
But the preposterous plot, the outrageous characters, and even the action scenes—like the one in which Jules drives his motorbike down a long flights of stairs and onto the metro—are not the reason to see Diva.
The real reason is to experience the imagery and the music: Cynthia Hawkins singing Catalani in her silver gown, Gorodish’s vintage white Citroen approaching the Magritte-like vision of a solitary lighthouse, and the melancholy Satie-like piano music of Vladimir Cosma that plays as Jules spends a few precious hours wandering Paris with his idol Cynthia, tenderly sheltering her with an umbrella. With the help of still moments like these, the movie captures the danger and romance of Paris and the sweet hopelessness of a young man’s infatuation.