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 rotunda—these are the first images in Diva: Pope’s “Elysian scenes, / And crystal domes, and angels in machines.”4 (And they’re set to a musical joke that catches you by surprise like a bit of metrical pyrotechnics.)
Doe-eyed, dark, serious, the young man, Jules (Frédéric Andrei), gazes up and around the packed theater; a pair of hands drape over the balcony right above his head, clasped prayerfully. And when the Queen of the Night, the diva Cynthia Hawkins (the American opera singer Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) enters in a one-shouldered white satin gown and begins to sing (an aria from Catalani’s La Wally), Jules is transfixed in awe and ecstasy—except for his hands, busy manipulating the knobs of the professional-quality Swiss tape recorder hidden on his lap: an act that the diva will later refer to as “un viol,” a rape.
Impromptu, Jules doubles the viol by stealing the diva’s white gown, which hangs unnoticed on a wall when he goes backstage to get her autograph. Later, he listens to the taped aria with the gown draped along his reclining body like a lover. His way of transmuting everything into art encloses him in a bubble, like the motorcycle helmet. He lives in a garage-like loft full of wrecked cars, including a Rolls Corniche. To an observer, it’s “pretty gloomy,” but to him it’s “a monument to disaster—deluxe!”
Beineix loves technology and the proper names for machinery (the way Pope loved things like the lock-snipping scissors—“the glitt’ring forfex”—and the mechanics of the card game his characters play, with exotic names like “Spadillio” for the face cards and trumps). Jule’s tape recorder is “ma Nagra,” his watch is “ma Skelton,” his friend’s moped is “vôtre Malaguti” (and when the Malaguti crashes, it gets a nice send-off in a flower-vendor’s stall—a curtain call with bouquets). A passenger in a car is informed, “You are aboard a II CV Citroën.” Jules, hiding from his pursuers at the apartment of friends, gets into bed fully clothed, and when one bedmate objects to bumping against his motorcycle helmet, the other produces a sophistic rabbit out of the helmet: “In an earthquake it could save him.”
This enchantment with whatever is takes its extreme form in a young Vietnamese girl Jules meets after watching her shoplift a record album. The girl, Alba (Thuy An Luu), responds to surfaces as innocently as a baby: she touches, she takes. When she reaches for Jules’s Swiss Nagra and he says, “Don’t touch that—it’s sacred,” she laughs incredulously, and says he’s the “Swiss.” Asked who owns something, she shrugs: “It exists.” Her idea of a joke is to say something is what it isn’t; when Jules asks if some photographs of her are photographs of her, she says, “No, a crocodile,” and snickers. At Jules’s loft, she wants a straw for her can of Coke, and he improvises one from a plastic gas-feed line: in her see-through raincoat over a pink minidress, she could be a soap bubble he just blew from the transparent tube. These two in headphones, listening to the diva on tape, are angels in machines hooked up to another angel in a machine.
Favours to none, to all she smiles extends;
Oft she rejects, but never once of- fends.
Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,
And, like the sun, they shine on all alike….
If to her share some female errors fall,
Look on her face, and you’ll forget ’em all.
Beineix’s diva, Cynthia, is a charming blend of the divine and the banal. One of the movie’s most delicious conceits is Cynthia’s speech pattern: a slow, over-enunciated franglais—the language of international opera stars born in Queens, toddlers raised in embassies, and heavenly beings who prettily condescend to use the strange, inadequate language of mortals. When Jules appears at her hotel to return the stolen gown, she says regally, “Un-bee-leevable! Vous me prenez pour les Beatles?” Lingering, amused, over her own pronunciation, she can make a word color the whole movie—“mo-bi-lette“—as if half aware that she’s living in Beineix’s poem.
In her art, Cynthia’s powerful, mobile lips are hypnotic, the focus of her audience’s rapt stillness; in life, too, her spacey voice makes a bubble of eternity around her, like the dome of her white parasol. At first she seems immobilized, isolated—but in Diva’s alchemy, the characters enhance each other. Jules’s return of her gown sets off an exchange of gifts, spontaneous and artful. His sweetness brings out her capacity for forgiveness and impulsive happiness. She gives him a walk in the park transformed into a set of études on a walk in the park; he touches her shoulder in gratitude, and she takes his hand, also in gratitude. When the Taiwanese record pirates use their knowledge of Jules’s tape to pressure her into signing a contract with them, her pragmatic manager is for it, saying of the tape, “It exists.” She’s rigid about spontaneity: “Music, it comes and goes—don’t try to keep it.” But confiding in Jules, she can leave a little door open: “Never. They’ll never make me do it. At least, not that way.”
In Diva’s crooks, the good characters’ attributes are shrunk and flattened into a stylized wrongness (like the posturing teapots and talking goose-pies in Pope’s cave of Spleen). The elegant record pirates’ love of music is perverted into a financial obsession with getting an “exclusive”; they have a spiritual side, and fabulous technology, but use them to threaten, phoning people from their sleek car to issue sinister Confucianesque maxims about the patient implacability of the buffalo. The head of the crime ring, dealing in black prostitutes and narcotics, is an underworld impresario of pleasure—and a worldly impresario of corrupted law and order. His two thug henchmen wreck and murder to restore the “order” of the old status quo, and to them spontaneity is setting off a Molotov cocktail. In another of the movie’s conceits, they carry on a running dialogue of Neanderthal aesthetics: “J’aime pas Beethoven”; “Garages are beautiful”; “I don’t like elevators”; “You don’t like anything.”
Threaded through the plot are a policeman and policewoman—like spectators trying to clamber onstage and join the opera. Most of the justice is more stylishly arranged, by Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), the fourth of the movie’s angels in machines—his, a grand white Citroën touring car with rolling-wave fenders and high-flying headlamps that reflect the sky back at the driver. An aging hippie with a two-day growth of beard, bleary eyes, and a French scholastic’s sharp, dry little smile, Gorodish lives with Alba in a spacious blue-lighted loft, where he meditates on a transparent kinetic sculpture with an undulating blue liquid inside, a blue-and-white jigsaw puzzle, and the ripply white lines on blue Gitanes boxes. While Jules rides around on his mobilette, Alba strolls restlessly or roller-skates across the loft, and Cynthia glides like a swan on water, Gorodish is an absolutely still point—until action is needed. He’s the movie’s personification of perfect balance. (“Not too thick, not too thin, fresh but not too fresh,” he says, buttering bread.)
Gorodish dealing with the crooks is a master of meticulously planned spectacle and spur-of-the-moment stagecraft. His weapons are space, light, and illusion—the stuff of movies. (“Thence, by a soft transition, we repair / From earthly vehicles to these of air.”) The crime leader tries to escape by staging a counter-illusion. The crooks’ deaths are scarcely more literal than the ones in the climactic battle of “The Rape of the Lock,” where the weapons are the stuff of poetry: “A beau and witling perish’d in the throng, / One died in metaphor, and one in song.”
Everything that happens in Diva finds a place in a fluid equilibrium. And the script and soundtrack play an equal part in the wit for which its visual style is being praised. (There is more wordplay in the French than the subtitles pick up; at one point, the words “viol,” “viole,” “vol,” and “vole” make a flutter of associations—rape, music, theft, bird-flight, a grand slam at cards, and hints of wishing and caprice.) The images rhyme: a hand on a shoulder, a pair of gloves laid on the shoulder of a carved torso, the words “Don’t touch—it’s sacred”; an aria, birds twittering, a tiny painted oiseau magique, a tape recorder flying on a wire. Two pairs of bare feet, separated by over an hour of movie, correspond and sweeten each other. Yet Diva never seems calculated. In its effervescent world, design looks like chance, and accidents make patterns.
The rape of the diva’s voice turns out for the best; the four principals’ mutual tolerance creates space for beauty to take shape. In a final scene, staged by Jules in a deserted theater, he returns her voice to her, as if to say:
Hear and believe! thy own impor–
And all the red plush theater seats are wearing gossamer plastic dresses:
Know then, unnumber’d spirits round thee fly,
The light militia of the lower sky:
These, though unseen, are ever on the wing,
Hang o’er the box, and hover round the Ring.
May 27, 1982
The form of this attribution is from an epigraph in a mystery novel by Edmund Crispin, The Glimpses of the Moon. Betterton and Bracegirdle were Congreve’s producer and star. ↩
Gallimard, 1981. My translation. ↩
J. Hoberman, The Village Voice, April 20, 1982. ↩
This and all the following quotations are from Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” ↩