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Knight at the Movies: Diva
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2008-02-01

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Twenty five years after its U.S. premiere, Diva—the film that took America arthouses by storm in 1982 and ushered in an aptly named brand of new wave French cinema termed cinema dú look—is back with a new 35mm print and new subtitles. Director Jean Jacques-Beineix's pop-art pastiche is a glittering mix of artifice and genuine cool, with its intricate yet effortless thriller plot populated by some of the screen's most individual and eccentric characters; its combination of playful sexiness and frank desire; and its eye-popping electric visuals with one memorable set piece after another. It is all set to the amazing music score of Vladimir Cosma, which spans new wave to Satie to the aria from La Wally sung by the stunning African-American beauty Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez at the outset of the movie who plays the title role.

As Beineix's film opens, Jules ( Frédéric Andrei ) , the cute 18-year-old postman who zips around Paris on his moped, sits entranced listening to his diva, opera star Cynthia Hawkins ( Wiggins Fernandez ) as she performs a recital. Hawkins has a peculiar tic: she refuses to make recordings, insisting on the purity of the interaction between performer and audience. But Jules sneaks in expensive tape equipment and illicitly records the concert for himself. It's this tape and another—one made by a prostitute naming names in a call girl/drug ring and hidden in Jules' mailbag before she's murdered—that will set the plot in motion. Rogue cops and murderous thugs want the cassette made by the prostitute, and a duo of ruthless Taiwanese businessmen want Jules' tape so they can release it to the public.

As the plot plays out, Jules meets his diva and a host of other eccentrics. Among them: Alba, the pre-pubescent Vietnamese lollipop with her plastic clothes and clunky platforms who roller-skates around the blue loft of her rich savior, the chain-smoking Gorodish—who works at gigantic jigsaw puzzles of ocean waves; dons a mask and snorkel to dice onions; and reeks of sophisticated cool. It is Gorodish and Alba who will help out their new friend Jules when he finally catches on that he's in over his head. True to the rest of Beineix's film, the resolution is thrilling, funny and charming.

Diva is a perfect mash-up of old and new ( literally in its music, blending classical and new wave with perfect assurance ) , and it is visually delightful and inventive. I fell so hard for its stylishness and sensuality that I took it in at least four more times after first seeing it and the soundtrack—especially the iconic Sentimental Walk—has been in rotation on the CD player off and on ever since.

Why do I love Diva so much? Why have I popped it into my DVD player time and again ( and here's hoping this new print will lead to a better looking DVD ) ? Because it takes me back to the height of my own love affair with all things cool at the outset of the artsy '80s? Because, even though it doesn't contain a single gay character, one can feel them right there just out of frame? Yes to both, but mostly it's because it's beautiful to look at and is entertaining as hell. Hardly an artifact, Diva remains fixed in a perfect universe of cool—a moment of utter hipness and sophistication that has never lost its flavor. Opens Friday and plays exclusively at the Music Box Theatre. www.musicboxtheatre.com

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site, where there is also ordering information on my new book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.


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