[This piece was originally published in issue eight of Christina Lake and Doug Bell’s fanzine, Head!, in March 2009. The PDF of the entire issue is available at efanzines.com.]
I recently had the opportunity to see the movie Diva again for the first time in probably twenty years or more. Luke McGuff and I braved a rainy January night and, appropriately enough, an opera crowd convening at McCaw Hall next door as we made our way to Seattle’s SIFF Theater to see the film. Diva was a movie I liked a lot when it came out in 1981. I saw it several times back then, all in the theater — back before videotapes and DVDs killed off the repertory theaters.
Luke told me that his old friend Karen Trego, from the days when he lived in Minneapolis, always argued that Diva was proto-cyberpunk. The maguffin that drives the plot is, as in much cyberpunk, information — in this case, a tape that exposes a drug cartel, which is furthermore confused with a bootlegged tape of a performance by the eponymous diva. All this information — both the incriminating evidence and the bootlegged music — wants to be free. I had never thought of it that way before, but I could certainly see it once the idea was broached. There’s a certain studied coolness and globalized hodgepodge and punk-zen attitude, on top of the thriller info-plot, that seems similar to what Bill Gibson in particular got up to starting around the same time as the movie came out. (I’m pretty sure he has acknowledged the impact of Escape from New York and Blade Runner, so it’s easy enough to imagine further cinematic influence.)
What I also hadn’t really noticed before was what a mash-up of genres it is. An erotic-art-thriller-romance? I guess another similarity to Gibson is the way that the caper-thriller plot seems like an excuse or skeleton for just showing us a bunch of cool shit. On the artsy side, there’s an almost dadaist sensibility at work, throwing off snappy non-sequiturs for the sheer hell of it. The characters and plot elements are a mélange: Taiwanese music pirates in mirrorshades; an African-American opera diva (speaking heavily accented French) who refuses to record because music is of the moment and not a commodity; a cute teenage French-Vietnamese shoplifter who uses nude photos of herself to distract attention from her crimes; a free-spirited mail courier who makes the bootleg tape and steals the diva’s gown and then pays a prostitute to wear it while they have sex to the music; a shaved-head thug called the Priest who wears leather and doesn’t like anything (in a terse running gag); and a rich French guy who is into Zen — “he wants to stop the wave” — and who gives a great riff on how to properly butter your bread and then totally tools the bad guys like some kind of upper class ninja using the cutting edge technology of the day: a Sony Walkman.
“Les caprices,” says a character at one point. “What?” asks the American diva en anglais. “Whims,” she’s told. Indeed.
The movie is based on a novel by the Swiss writer Daniel Odier, writing under the pseudonym Delacorta. Odier is himself an interesting figure whose first book was a collection of interviews with William S. Burroughs and who has become a convert to Shivaic Tantrism and written books on tantric sex and Buddhist and Taoist meditation techniques, as well as opening a Tantra/Zen center in Paris. The novel Diva was part of a series he wrote about Gorodish and Alba, who are the upper class ninja and the teenaged shoplifter in the movie. In the book, Gorodish is an ex-gangster who has struck out on his own, and Alba is not of Vietnamese descent but a blonde, budding Lolita, just thirteen years old, whose platonic relationship with Gorodish is not completely innocent of carnal thoughts and feelings, at least on her side. (This aspect of the book is actually captured in a different movie, Luc Besson’s Léon, where Natalie Portman’s 12-year-old Mathilda harbors inappropriate feelings for the hitman played by Jean Reno, who like Gorodish in the book, is not interested in exploiting the vulnerable girl.) The novel is very stripped down in its language (at least judging from the translation) and almost seems ready-made for movie adaptation in its simplicity and compactness. Still, it has its punchy lines, as when the courier’s anticipation at meeting the diva is described, “His heart was pounding like Bartók’s sonata for two pianos and percussion.”
The movie not only modifies Gorodish and Alba and moves them slightly behind the courier in the character hierarchy, but it also restructures the nature of the crime kingpin (effectively combining two characters from the book) and changes the Japanese record label representatives into the enigmatic Taiwanese. Much of the romantic and philosophical matter surrounding the American diva remains, however, including the wabi-sabi spirit of her resistance to recording, which she expresses this way in the book: “No recording can ever measure up to my standards of how a voice should sound. But even if that were possible, I’d still be appalled at the idea that a moment of magic could be reproduced tens of thousands of times. That’s not art. And there are always little imperfections that are acceptable only because they’re unique; I wouldn’t want them to be recorded and played over and over.”
Another thing the movie takes from the book is its fascination with surfaces and commodities, which is another similarity with Gibson. Diva was one of the first movies in a mini-movement in France that came to be called the cinéma du look — all sleek and shiny and reflective, grungy at times, but with en eye for the designer label — Rolex (and Swatch) watches, Rolls Royce, Swiss tape decks, seductive mountains of Gitanes cigarette packs. It’s a very sexy look, also seen in Besson’s Subway (1985) and Carax’s Mauvais sang (1986) and, much later, as a kind of homage, Assayas’ demonlover (2002). Visually, it’s all about the play of light: distorted reflections, refractions, and diffractions in chrome, multiple mirrors, waxed floors, rain-slicked streets, the glass of pinball machines. It’s a perfect style for depicting a world of shattered grand illusions.
As the lights came up in the theater at our January viewing and the credits rolled over a beautiful aria, the theater manager came in and warned us that a fire alarm was about to go off. Sure enough, a siren was soon shrieking a duet with the diva. It seemed appropriate somehow — a melding of noise and music. We stumbled outside into an inexplicable mass of excited teenagers pouring out of the opera house next door and piling into school buses parked on the rain-slicked streets out front. We looked around for thugs in leather jackets and inappropriate mirrorshades, but we didn’t have the equipment to play that old tape anymore, so we moved on.