Knight at the Movies Archives
A cool classic returns and a spotlight on psychological horror producer Val Lewton on TCM
25 years after its US premiere Diva – the film that took American arthouses by storm in 1982 and ushered in an aptly named brand
of new wave French cinema termed cinema dú look – is back with a new 35mm print and new subtitles. Director Jean Jacques-
Beineix’s pop art pastiche is a glittering mix of artifice and genuine cool with its intricate yet effortless thriller plot enacted by some
of the screen’s most individual and eccentric characters; its combination of playful sexiness and frank desire; its eye popping electric
visuals with one memorable set piece after another. All set to the amazing music score of Vladimir Cosma, which spans new wave to
Satie, and the aria from “La Wally” sung by the stunning African-American beauty Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez at the outset of the
movie who plays the title role.
As Beineix’s film opens Jules (Frédéric Andrei), the cute 18 year-old postman who zips around Paris on his moped sits entranced
listening to his Diva, opera star Cynthia Hawkins (Wiggins Fernandez) as she performs at a recital packed with fervent devotees.
Hawkins has a peculiar tic: she refuses to make recordings, insisting on the purity of the interaction between performer and
audience. But Jules, besotted over his Beloved’s voice, sneaks in expensive tape equipment and illicitly records the concert for
himself. It’s this tape and another – one made by a prostitute naming names in a call girl/drug ring and hidden in Jules’ mailbag
before she’s murdered – that will set the plot in motion. Rogue cops and murderous thugs want the cassette made by the prostitute
and a duo of ruthless Taiwanese businessmen want Jules’ tape so they can release it to the public.
As the plot plays out, Jules meets his Diva and a host of other eccentrics, among them Alba the pre-pubescent Vietnamese lollipop
with her plastic clothes and klunky platforms who roller skates around the blue loft of her rich savior, the chain smoking Gorodish,
who works at gigantic jigsaw puzzles of ocean waves, dons a mask and snorkel to dice onions, and reeks of sophisticated cool. It is
Gorodish and Alba that will help out their new friend Jules when he finally catches on that he’s in over his head. True to the rest of
Beineix’s film, the resolution is thrilling, funny and charming.
Diva was based on a series of breezy French novels starring the Alba and Gorodish characters but none of the other books have been
filmed and following the international success of Diva Beineix made the ravishingly beautiful and supremely silly Moon in the Gutter
with Nastassja Kinski and hasn’t had much impact internationally since. Neither he, nor the rest of the group that made Diva ever
quite topped their work on the film again. It’s not hard to see why. Diva is a perfect mash up of old and new (literally in its music,
blending classical and new wave with perfect assurance), visually delightful and inventive. I fell so hard for its stylishness and
sensuality that I took it in at least four more times after first seeing it and the soundtrack – especially the iconic “Sentimental Walk”
– has been in rotation on the CD player off and on ever since.
Why do I love Diva so much? Why have I popped it into my DVD player time and again (and here’s hoping this new print will bring
us a better looking DVD)? Because it takes me back to the height of my own love affair with all things cool at the outset of the artsy
80s? Because even though it doesn’t contain a single gay character one can feel them right there just out of frame? Yes to both but
mostly because it’s beautiful to look at and entertaining as hell. Hardly an artifact, Diva remains fixed in a perfect universe of cool –
a moment of utter hipness and sophistication that never loses its flavor. Opens Friday and plays exclusively at Chicago's Music Box
Turner Classic Movies a/k/a my favorite cable station (it's like nirvana for we classic film fans) has put together a tribute to
psychological horror producer Val Lewton. Lewton produced nine pictures - one after the other - at RKO and was a God send for the
studio that was struggling after their expensive financial losses on their investment in Orson Welles, the boy genius. Welles' superb
The Magnificent Ambersons even provided sets for several of the Lewton pictures. This and much more is detailed in Val Lewton:
Man in the Shadows, a fascinating new documentary about producer Val Lewton presented and narrated by Martin Scorsese.
Lewton made a series of films for RKO in the early 1940s that depended on imagination, atmospheric lightning, sets, and expert
acting to frighten audiences. The documentary, which will debut on January 14, gives Lewton, who died young at 46 and obsessed
over every detail of his intricate, tightly edited and paced movies, the credit for the lasting legacy of his classics – Cat People, I
Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim among them. Several of his films – which will be shown on TCM in conjunction with the
documentary – feature “coded” lesbian characters. The documentary is being added to the existing Val Lewton set from WB Home
Video and will be released separately next month.
Diva-Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows
Expanded Edition of 1-9-08 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.