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“Diva” playfully muses on music and materialism

The sumptuous, sensory whirl of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s debut film is screening on 35mm at UW Cinematheque on August 5.

Photo: French mail courier Jules (Frédéric Andrei) sits and stares with American opera soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Fernandez) in the Parisian sun. Hawkins has opened a beige parasol, a stark contrast to her colorful attire and jewelry.

At once a gently absurdist comedy about the pleasures and pitfalls of artistic creation, a stylishly kinetic neo-noir thriller, and an intricately crafted postmodern love story, Diva (1981) is a film beyond compare. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s audacious debut feature offers an indelible, transcendent sensory experience that truly embodies the joy and magic of filmmaking. Cinephiles and opera lovers alike can catch a free screening of this hidden gem at UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall) on 35mm this Thursday, August 5, at 7 p.m.

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Adapted from the 1979 crime novel Diva by Daniel Odier (under the pseudonym Delacorta), Beineix’s film follows the adventures of Jules (Frédéric Andrei), a young postal employee and obsessive opera aficionado who cruises the streets of Paris delivering mail on his moped. Diva begins with a dramatic overture that abruptly stops as Jules parks his moped and attends an opera recital where an eccentric, strikingly beautiful American opera star named Cynthia Hawkins (played by real-life opera soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez in her only film role) sings the first-act aria from Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally.

While Jules luxuriates in the soaring heights of her sublime voice, he surreptitiously makes a high-fidelity bootleg tape of the performance using a professional-quality Nagra audio recorder concealed in his bag. Cynthia has cultivated a reputation as an uncompromising, singular artist who adamantly refuses to allow any recordings of her singing, and Jules possesses what may be the only existing tape of the star’s voice. This in itself renders it a priceless commodity. However, he recorded it solely for his own enjoyment and not for financial gain. Unbeknownst to Jules, a pair of shady Taiwanese bootleggers observed him making the tape and intend to take it from him.

After obtaining an autograph from Cynthia in her dressing room and impulsively stealing the diva’s gown, Jules returns home to his spacious industrial loft above a graveyard of crushed classic cars. He envelops himself in her elegant silk dress and listens to the illicit recording in a state of pure bliss. The next morning, Jules encounters a distressed, barefoot young woman with a tape of her own running away from two unsavory characters. He soon finds himself entangled in an increasingly labyrinthine situation, while being pursued by multiple dangerous criminals and the police simultaneously. Jules ends up borrowing a different moped from a friend and taking refuge with Alba (Thuy An Luu), a kleptomaniac French-Vietnamese nymphet, and Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), a cigar-smoking, bohemian spiritual guru. 

The giddily complex storyline of Diva may seem frivolous and contrived, but it essentially serves as a springboard for Beineix’s dazzling visual style. His idiosyncratic, puzzle-like picture creates a seamless blend of fine art and popular entertainment as it whimsically muses on the fleeting, ephemeral nature of music, the perpetually strained relationship between commerce and art, the meaning of artistic integrity in an empty consumer culture, and the Zen of buttering bread.

Considering that Diva author Daniel Odier also teaches Zen Buddhist meditation and practices, the film could even be seen as a cinematic expression of the Second Noble Truth in Buddhism, which identifies attachment to desire as the origin of suffering. Indeed, all of Jules’s troubles seem to arise from his attachment to the desire to possess Cynthia’s music in a material form.

Beineix’s film invites us to live in the present moment by surrendering to the magnetic flow of its rhythmic editing, slick surfaces, saturated color palette, and endlessly inventive mise-en-scène.  With one spellbinding, impressionistic composition after another, Diva sweeps the viewer into a vertiginous whirl of emotions, sounds, images, and ideas until it reaches its exquisite crescendo.

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