There’s humour, which for chearful Friends we got,
And for the thinking Party, there’s a Plot.
—Thomas Betterton, or Anne Bracegirdle, or William Congreve, or
Anonymous: from the Prologue to Congreve’s Love for Love1
One of the current hits in Paris is Milan Kundera’s play Jacques et Son Maître, a “variation,” as the author calls it, on Diderot’s novel Jacques la Fataliste. In an introduction to the French edition of the play, Kundera describes himself as “a hedonist trapped in a world politicized to the extreme,” and celebrates the eighteenth-century spirit that balances passion with “reason and doubt, play and the relativity of all human things.”2
A similar chord of enlightened playfulness is struck by another current French hit—a glittering metaphysical thriller called Diva, a first feature film directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, which recently opened in New York and Los Angeles. Diva was loosely adapted (by Beineix and a co-scenarist) from a suspense novel. The plot is a double chase after two tape recordings: one, an illicitly taped concert by a beautiful black American opera singer who refuses to record because “a concert is an exceptional moment”; the other, a prostitute’s revelations about the leader of an international vice-and-dope ring. The young opera fan who tapes the concert also comes into possession of the second tape, accidentally and unwittingly, and is pursued by cops and gangsters as well as a couple of silky Taiwanese record pirates.
Beineix makes a colorful, rhythmic thriller—the beauty intensifies the suspense. And if that were all he’s done, there would be only two plausible responses: as two characters say in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, “It may be nonsense, but at least it is clever nonsense,” and “It may be nonsense, but at least it’s not clever nonsense.” But (as with Stoppard) Beineix’s characters are all philosophers. It’s not so much that they hold positions; rather, they’re aggregates of atoms of ideas, in various permutations: order and chance, art and fact, pleasure and judiciousness, the sacred and the profane. Set in motion against a blue glow of Parisian night skies and lofty interiors, they intersect and make a starry harmony—as one critic wrote, like “the cosmos of Joseph Cornell.”3
Diva’s freshness invites you beyond movies for comparisons. In its iridescent technique, its delight at its own power to entertain; in its chiming imagery; in its confetti of ideas and allusions; in its adorable, minutely flawed protagonists, its exquisite villains and underworld fiends; and in its precise milieu that turns into a celestial playground for mock-heroic skirmishes of pride and violation, with a happy ending courtesy of Art, Diva is like a movie variation on Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.”
A grouping of classical statues at the Tuileries Gardens gate, a young man’s profile inside the plastic bubble of a motorcycle helmet, a silvery Rolls-Royce Flying Victory statuette attached to the prow of his moped, a rotating look way up at the carved antique ceiling of a theater…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.