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By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/19/2008

While Hollywood tragically adapts foreign flicks into its usual boilerplate entertainments, French reinventions inevitably add a sensual nonchalance and romantic extravagance to ready-made ideas: Breathless is but a B-crime flick riding Jean-Paul Belmondo's lips and Jean Seberg's tomboy cut into the sublime, Brotherhood of the Wolf a supernatural Hong Kong martial-arts epic wrapped around a romance, and so on. Director Jean-Jacques Beineix--best known for his simmering 1986 amour fou, Betty Blue--goes even further with his 1981 debut, Diva, currently in a restored rerelease run. It's a wrong-man Hitchcock thriller in love with art, but it's even more infatuated with its own stylistic excess.

Diva's Paris is outfitted in cold, derelict grays and concrete, and only in rooms, cars, and inanimate objects do people and colors come to life. Opera lover Jules (Frédéric Andréi) inhabits an upper-story auto garage, where posters, LPs, stereo equipment, and a disaster-themed mural animate the space's mechanic greasiness. Enigmatic artist Gorodish (Richard Bohringer, the cuisinier in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) inhabits a vast, if practically empty, flat painted wall-to-wall--and floor-to-ceiling--black with dashes of cool, electric blue thrown about in empty Gitane packs and puzzle pieces. Jules takes a late night-into-morning stroll with opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Fernandez), during which their perambulation is set off from the dreary city streets by a scintillant umbrella that looks practically gold-plated.

These colors and moments of quiet visual panache matter as much as the topsy-turvy plot, a pulpy case of the wrong man/place/time pushed into the absurd. Jules records a pirate copy of the heretofore unrecorded Hawkins that puts him in the cross hairs of a pair of crooked Taiwanese businessmen, while during his day gig as a moped deliveryman a scared prostitute drops an incriminating recording into his bag before she's offed by a pair of underworld thugs. Now Jules find himself hunted by two different pairs of dodgy dudes for what he thinks is the same recording, all while trying to flirt with Hawkins and hanging out at Gorodish's pad along with Alba (Thuy An Luu), a rather young Vietnamese-French woman who has a fondness for melodrama, see-through plastic clothing, and roller skates.

It's Beineix's visual aplomb that keeps such curlicue story lines moving along a brisk clip, during which he peppers the plot with drive-by movie quotes--to The Seven Year Itch, Kiss Me Deadly, Les Enfants du Paradis, and more--in passing, as if waving at a friend as you speed out of town. It's a movie drunk on it is fabulous energy--dig the moped chase through the Metro--that manages to solve its crime, unite its should-be lovers, and ratchet up a deadpan tension, all while feeling decorated entirely from Spencer's Gifts and the Sharper Image. Intoxicating fun.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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