Aug 29, 2014
I don’t know about other people, but when I hear the word “diva” I usually think of bitchy childless broads with deep voices that are mindlessly worshiped by both effete fags and fag hags alike. Of course, when it comes to the world of cinema, the importance of divas in both the personal and professional lives of gay filmmakers is no different. Indeed, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter, Daniel Schmid, Paul Bartel, John Waters, and Steve Balderson are just a couple of the auteur filmmakers that were/are obsessed with divas and utilize(d) them for their films. For his debut feature film Diva (1981), mainstream heterosexual French auteur Jean-Jacques Beineix (Moon in the Gutter, Betty Blue) would appropriate elements of gay culture and somehow managed to make a film featuring a wild chase scene with exactly nil cultivated cocksuckers about a young moped-riding frog mailman of the supposedly straight sort whose obsession with a black diva accidentally leads him to being targeted by both Taiwanese gangsters and a physically grotesque alpha-pimp police chief of the miscegenation-proliferating sort. Unquestionably a work with a majorly moronic and oftentimes absurd plot, Beineix’s flick features the sort of storyline you might expect from a Hollywood blockbuster where the studio heads attempting to appeal to a minority of gay southern hairdressers instead of the hopelessly proud philistine majority. Indeed, Diva and some of Beineix’s works are the sort of films that the technically proficient hacks of Hollywood should make, as true cinematic experiences that may not be big on nuance, subtext, and thematic complexity, but do have a certain alluring artfulness that almost makes one forget that they are watching what really amounts to frivolous frog twadde of the aesthetically spectacular sort. Part of the so-called ‘Cinéma du look’ movement—French works directed by Beineix, Luc Besson, and Leos Carax during the 1980s that emphasized style over substance and that were largely influenced by late era American New Wave works (e.g. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Coppola’s One from the Heart), late era Fassbinder (Lola, Querelle), music videos (especially of the New Wave and New Romanticist variety), fashion photography and even TV commercials (!)—Diva is cultivated kitsch drowned in a fulfilling visual feast of throbbing blues, Italian Romantic opera, and naughty neon nights that almost make multicultural Paris seem like a magical and mystifying place that totally transcends it world famous reputation as Europe's modern day Sodom. Based on the 1979 crime novel of the same name written by French novelist/poet Daniel Odier (under the pseudonym ‘Delacorta’), Beineix’s film fell into my lap by accident while checking out ‘official’ music videos by the drug-addled electronic group Thieves Like Us, which ‘unofficially’ used clips from the famous chase scene for one of their videos. Set in a modernistic ‘post-racial’ multicultural France flooded with sexually alluring women from virtually every single race except white, the only major white female character is a frigid chick who thinks her gun is an appropriate substitute for a dick, a quasi-megalomaniacal American negress is the ultimate diva, and all forms of authority/order are depicted as being overtly ‘fascistic,’ Diva does virtually every annoying politically correct thing one can imagine to the point were it had me fantasizing about France being once again occupied by Germany yet somehow the film works. Co-produced by Russian-Jewish-French producer Serge Silberman, who previously collaborated with Luis Buñuel on such masterpieces as Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and the director's swansong That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), and featuring a pastiche of Erik Satie's Gnossiennes created by Romanian composer Vladimir Cosma and a nocturnal chase scene that Roger Ebert compared to those featured in classic films like Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), Diva is, if nothing else, certainly one of the most successful cinematic marriages between high and low art, as a sort of proletarian arthouse flick.
Young French mailman Jules (played by Frédéric Andréi, who would later became a filmmaker) is a cultivated prole of the seemingly half-autistic sort who rides his beloved moped to a Parisian opera house one night to watch and illegally record his favorite opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez)—a celebrated black American soprano opera singer—performing “La Wally,” act 1, by Italian Romantic composer Alfredo Catalani. Unbeknownst to gentleman Jules, two sunglasses-adorned Taiwanese gangsters saw him record the performance and they want the bootleg recording because Ms. Hawkins is an old fashioned ‘artiste’ who refuses to record albums, thereupon making the mailman’s recording an extremely rare and truly one-of-a-kind item that is all but priceless. After the performance, Jules awkwardly attempts to chitchat with Hawkins and when that more or less fails, the peculiar postal worker subsequently steals her gown from her dressing room, thus demonstrating his particularly perverted obsession with the colored diva. Of course, Jules’ danger is doubled when he unwittingly comes into possession of a cassette tape that is dropped in his bag by a Slavic prostitute named Nadia (Chantal Deruaz), who is subsequently murdered in broad daylight by a mean midget skinhead named ‘Le curé’ aka ‘The Priest’ (Dominique Pinon) and his tall Svengali-like Mediterranean comrade ‘L' Antillais’ aka ‘The Caribbean’ (Gérard Darmon). The hitman odd couple work for a considerably corrupt Police commissioner named Jean Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) who is secretly runs a global prostitution ring where he trades hard drugs for brown, black, and yellow girls that he has hustle for him in the streets of Paris. Before being murdered, Nadia, who was the former mistress of the crypto-pimp police commissioner, recorded an incriminating testimony regarding Saporta’s carnal underworld empire. No small-time crime novice, Saporta has set it up so that the local authorities and media think that the Parisian hooker industry is under the control of a fictional Indian man and Nadia's tape reveals this fact. Unbeknownst to Jules for most of the movie, he is in possession of this rather incriminating recording as Nadia dropped it in his mailbag shortly before she took a fatal knife to the back, so it takes the mobile mailman a while to figure out why he is a marked man. Meanwhile, two ‘good cops,’ Paula (Anny Romand) and Zatopek (Patrick Floersheim), who seem to represent the ignorant yet well-meaning French middle class, attempt to catch up with Jules to get the tape. Ironically, it is when good cop Zatopek attempts to catch Jules that the film features its iconic chase scene. Indeed, Jules does a lot of running from various parties, but it is not until towards the end of the film that he realizes who he should be truly afraid of.
After being impressed by her thievery at a hip record store and nude black-and-white pin-ups, Jules strikes up a mostly platonic relationship with an underage Vietnamese chick named Alba (Thuy An Luu), who loves stealing, modeling for ostensibly artsy nude portraits, listening to her headphones, and rolling around buildings in roller-skates. Alba is the muse/girlfriend/slave of a genius artist/gangster/philosopher figure named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer)—a man that initially seems like a total recluse because he spends most of his time hanging out at his lavish home yet is a truly worldly man that seems to know just about everything about everything, no matter what the topic may be—who states to Jules while wearing a goofy snorkel and buttering a baguette regarding his theory of Zen, “Some get high on airplane glue…detergent…fancy gimmicks…My satori is this: Zen in the art of buttering bread.” Gorodish is also overprotective over his tiny Asiatic muse Alba (who, it should be noted, was a pale blonde girl in the source novel) and when she shows up late one night after after hanging out with Jules, he threatens her by calmly stating, “Do this again and I’ll drop you off back on the interstate, with the Vietcong.” As he will ultimately prove, Gorodish is the “master of the game” and “deus ex machine” who will manage to solve all of Jules problems by virtually singlehandedly taking out the Taiwanese gangsters, as well as Saporta and his two ‘fascistic’ goons, by merely playing them like chess pieces. Indeed, compared to Gorodish—a man with a somewhat flat affect who seems to personify stereotypical French pretense, sexual degeneracy (after all, his girlfriend is an underage gook thief with a seemingly low IQ), and artistic dilettantism but ultimately proves to be a super sly criminal genius of the seemingly indomitable sort—Jules is a stupid kid with a celebrity crush who lives in a fantasy world and has no idea of the magnitude of the trouble he mostly unwittingly got himself into. Indeed, if it were not for his new comrade Gorodish, Jules would most certainly be one extra-pale froggy corpse.
Unquestionably, one of the most ridiculous elements of Diva is the ‘romantic’ subplot between protagonist Jules and his dark divine diva Cynthia Hawkins. Not long after awkwardly attempting to speak with her in her dressing room after her performance at the beginning of the film, Jules randomly swings by Cynthia’s lavish luxury hotel room and absurdly reveals to her that he is the crazed fan that swiped her gown. Initially angry and threatening to call security, Cynthia soon begins wallowing in Jules’ somewhat unsettling fan boy worship. In fact, Jules has such a bizarre obsession with the diva that he pays an Indian prostitute to model the gown he stole from Cynthia, though he does not dare to look at the streetwalker's bare body when she changes into the glittery dress, as if he is an embarrassed schoolboy who lacks the tools to get down and dirty with a delectable dame. When the brown prostitute remarks to Jules, “You seem a little nutty,” the young mailman is not at all offended and proudly replies, “I am,” as if he feels special due to his strangely obsessive behavior. A lonely and unpredictable artist with very specific demands and routines, Cynthia refuses to take her manager’s advice and record an album after it is revealed that a bootleg of her Paris performance has surfaced. Of course, in the end, the opera singer does not have to worry about anything after Jules recovers the bootleg recording and brings it back to Cynthia and plays it for her, to which the diva remarks, “never heard [herself] sing,” as if she feels humbled by the experience. Ironically, despite being a world famous opera singer, Cynthia only manages to feel like a true ‘diva’ after being swooned by a French lumpenprole mailman on a moped who was swooned by her singing.
I think it is only fitting that my first viewing of Diva was via dubious download (as for who made this dubious download, I cannot be sure), as a crime-thriller centering around a bootleg recording that was created in an era when the internet did not exist and one had to deal with shady characters if one wanted to obtain rare artistic materials by less than official means. A rare film with a great and rather iconic chase scene that actually has a bit of artistic merit, Beineix’s debut feature proves that there actually be a healthy medium between mindless entertainment and celluloid art that one might describe as ‘proletarian cinematic poetry.’ Indeed, next to Belgian auteur Patrick Conrad’s absurdly underrated flick Mascara (1987) starring Charlotte Rampling and Michael Sarrazin, Diva has to be the best from the 1980s about divas, death, and aesthetic excess. While technically a crime-thriller, Beineix’s work will surely be more appreciated by fans of new wave/punk/goth stylized cult flicks like Liquid Sky (1982), Eckhart Schmidt’s Der Fan (1982) aka Trance, The Hunger (1983), Repo Man (1984), Pejzazi u magli (1984) aka Landscapes In The Mist, and even To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) than by Brian De Palma fanboys. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the film was advertised in the United States with the following tagline: “Here comes a new kind of French New Wave.” Unquestionably, as much as I love some (emphasis on “some”) films and filmmakers of La Nouvelle Vague, I have to admit that I lean more towards the ‘new romantic’ aesthetic of Diva and some of Beineix’s other films and I say that as someone that is rather repelled by the mainstream auteur filmmaker’s flagrant multicultural fetishism and proclivity toward typical frog twaddle. Indeed, a film has to be doing something right if it manages to make a romance between a goofy half-autistic frog dork and a American negress opera singer seem somewhat cute and touching.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 2:35 AM
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