IN ONE PARTICULARLY poignant moment in Jean Jacques Beineix's new movie Diva. Cynthia Hawknis, the striking Black soprano of the title, and her adoring fan Jules stroll through the streets of a rainy and ancient Paris. Floating serenely across grassy parks and statue-ridden boulevards, the pair find themselves suspended in a world more appropriate to the match-making machinations of Maurice Chevalier in Gigi than to the high tech high punk goings-on of the film's other characters. Hawkins carries a ruffled parasol, and young Jules, wearing the kind of lean and hungry look that only a European can muster, follows a few steps behind her. Sati (of course) comes rolling ever so slowly off the soundtrack.
When the lovers awake the next morning in Diva's hotel suite, the camera pans lovingly over every elegant, sun-drenched detail--embroidered sheets, flowers, lacy curtains, Hawkins' sculpted profile--before coming to rest on a sleeping, naked Jules. After a few moments of admiring contemplation, it pans back to reveal a delightful surprise: The boy has spent the night not, as the viewer assumes, between his siren's sheets but chastely on her couch.
Diva is filled with moments like this, incidents that deliberately give an edge to what might otherwise seem like over-serious cinematic cliches. Although the film's near-perfection would excuse almost any minor directorial excess, it is nevertheless wonderful when an unexpected twist--for instance that a sadistic punk in aviator glasses, army boots and an earplug has in fact been listening to accordion music, of all things--startles the audience out of its complacency. One of the nicest things about Diva is its ability to generate goose-pimpling suspense while laughing, just a little, at the classical suspense format it follows.
Jules, a young delivery boy, Hawkins, the temperamental opera superstar, a Vietnamese punk beauty named Alba and her lover, an cerie, Prospero-like figure who seems to know what's going on at all the most confusing moments in the movie--these are the film's principal characters. Assorted punks and thugs from at least two underground crime operations and a corrupt chief of police also join in the fray. And an attractive policewoman, who ends up the saving the day, makes a brief but efficient appearance.
The film's two plots--one dealing with Jules' obsession with the diva and the other, with the sleazy operations of something called the "Caribbean Connection"--revolve around the time-honored devices of mistaken identity and unwitting involvement in crime. When Jules illicitly tapes a Hawkins concert, he becomes the object of a sinister gang of Taiwanese sporting mirror-sunglasses who are trying to obtain pirated recordings of the famous singer. (For "artistic reasons," Hawkins has always refused to make records). And when a prostitute escaping from the "Caribbean Connection" (which seems to have something to do with white slavery and heroine) hides in Jules' knapsack a recorded confession revealing the identity of the gang's boss, he's in for a lot of unexpected late-night callers.
WHAT PUTS DIVA in a class above the usual plotty thriller is its bizarre setting. There are no romantic sidewalk cafes or sunsets over the Eiffel Tower in this Paris. Instead, the viewer enters a world of neon and cellophane and leather--a world in which vast underground garages contain video palaces and cats have names like "Ayatollah" and everyone lives in a loft. And yet, what makes this punked-out environment intriguing is that it contains many small reminders of the old Paris. Jules first meets Alba when he watches her shoplift records in a discomat. She is dressed completely in plastic and carries a portfolio of naked self-portraits. She says things like "Oh wow, man, COOL" and sips Coke from a straw because it's chic. Yet later in the film, she keeps our hero from fainting (thus saving his life) by spinning fairy tales of princesses in enchanted gardens. At a place known only as "The Castle," she brings him fruit and milk on a tray reminiscent of a Cezanne still-life. Her lover, the master of The Castle, spends most of his time sitting in a dimly lit room doing a giant wave jigsaw puzzle while listening to whale noises. He also cooks fabulous French food and owns not one, but two elderly white Citroens.
Without half its complexity of plot, Diva would be captivating. The photography is stunning, particularly during a climatic sequence in an abandoned warehouse. The acting is low-key and effective. Fredrich Andre plays the handsome Jules with an appealing and desperate innocence. Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez as the diva, gives the insecure prima donna an amusingly American French accent, an appropriate haughtiness of manner, and a crystalline singing voice. Thuy An Luu and Richard Bohringer (as Alba and her boyfriend) are very good at behaving strangely, which appears to be their primary function.
The only problem with Diva is that at times Beineix's knack for adding bizarreness to things like car chases and gangsters verges on the farcical. The Caribbean Connection's two henchmen are truly terrifying, especially the sinister aviator-man only says sentences beginning with "I don't like...." Yet their predilection for popping up in unlikely places becomes unbelievable the fourth or fifth time around. Likewise, Hawkins' ready acceptance of Jules as companion and confidant seems incredible, considering her "I vant to be alone" aura.
However, part of the fun of this movie is its ready movement between the worlds of fantasy and reality. Unexpected things keep happening at such a clip that by the time we visit Alba to find her roller skating around the vast apartment while her lover cuts onions in a snorkel and face mask, we are ready to accept them. Maybe next year 007 will die his hair green and wear army boots too.