Jean-Jacques Beineix was Luc Besson before Luc Besson was, and “Diva” is the reason.
When I visited the set of “Sherlock Holmes” in London recently, one of the things I was most excited by was the opportunity to meet cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. And again… “Diva” is the reason.
It’s strange how this film’s reputation really hasn’t sustained over the years. When it came out, it was a sort of phenomenon, and the ripples it sent through the commercial world were unmissable. People ripped this movie off. A lot. And once you see this, you’ll see what I mean about Besson… I’d argue that his film “Leon” is a sort of direct reaction to what he must have loved when he first saw this one. It’s amazing that “Diva” was a debut feature, and what’s even more amazing is how little impact Beineix has had since. His only other film to really register internationally was “Betty Blue,” and he’s dropped off the map completely at this point. I hadn’t seen “Diva” in many years, so when The Miriam Collection put it out, it was a nice opportunity to revisit the picture and see if it still seems cool after all this time.
And the answer is absolutely. This is not a particularly deep picture. Beineix is too busy just getting drunk on the potential of filmmaking itself to bother saying much. That’s okay, though, because the film offers up visual and aural pleasures at every turn. Working (loosely) from a novel by Daniel Odier, Beineix tells the story of Jules (Frederic Andrei), a bike messenger in Paris who is absolutely infatuated with an American opera singer named Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelminia Fernandez). She’s notorious because she absolutely refuses to allow any recordings to be made of her live performances. She believes that an audience has to be there, in person, to truly understand what it is that she does, and that any recording would only diminish her work. Jules doesn’t care. He’s so in love with her voice that he follows her on tour from performance to performance and now, finally, he’s taken the ultimate step of bootlegging one of her concerts. That’s where the film opens, and the tape he makes leads him down a rabbit hole into a very, very strange adventure. Seems there are some unscrupulous businessmen from Tokyo who want his bootleg so they can blackmail Cynthia into a recording contract, promising to release the bootleg if she says no. But another tape ends up in the mix, too, when a woman being chased by some goons drops a tape into the storage compartment on Jules’s scooter. That tape features evidence that could put away a corrupt police commissioner who traffics in white slavery. Jules ends up on the run, assisted by a crazy cute little Vietnamese girl named Alba (the dangerous 14-year-old Thuy An Luu) and her mentor/boyfriend, a philosopher/fixer named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), and the entire thing unfolds with this wild sense of style that absolutely must have had an impact on guys like Michael Mann and… well… pretty much everyone who directed anything for MTV in the ’80s. The loopy visuals, the soaring opera, the oh-so-French attitude… it’s a heady cocktail, and absolutely holds up as a New New Wave classic.