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When Diva appeared in American theaters in 1982, it was heralded as "a new kind of French New Wave," a distinction that was both a promise and a threat. A colorful, stylish thriller steeped in nostalgia yet distinctly aware of its own time, Diva became a template for the shiny, happy 1980s aesthetic that was part pop art stripped of its irony, part an embrace of sleek commercialism.

Even though it takes place largely in a Paris underworld rife with corruption, there's nothing gritty about Diva, which is so polished it gleams. French critics derisively dubbed director Jean-Jacques Beineix's feature debut as cinema du look, but seeing Diva again, it's clear that style did not trump substance. It's a patchwork of genres — a mystery, romance, comedy and musical — that feels utterly seamless, a movie made for the swooning love of movies.

Diva became hugely influential for its visual flair, but Beineix's strength was his ability to ground it in the reality of his compromised characters.

Moped-riding postman Jules (Frédéric Andréi) loves opera, but his real passion is the elusive American diva Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), who refuses to make albums. So this young audiophile sneaks sophisticated sound equipment into her recital, and captures a crystalline recording of the aria from Alfredo Catalini's La Wally.

Then he steals the silver silk sheath she wore for the performance. Not the actions of a typical movie hero, and in another filmmaker's hands, Jules would come off as a stalker. At once her exploiter and protector, Jules begins to insinuate himself into Cynthia's closed world, and Beineix's attitude is breezily nonchalant; his moral neutrality lets Diva crackle with real tension.

While this relationship is the film's emotional heart, the chic crime novels of Delacorta (Nana, Diva, Luna and Rock) revolve around the savvy, idiosyncratic gangster Serge Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) and his sassy Vietnamese Lolita, Alba (Thuy An Luu). They cross paths with Jules just as he's getting into deep trouble: A vindictive pimp (Gérard Darmon) and corrupt policeman (Dominique Pinon) are on his trail, as are two very determined record pirates.

This mishmash of plot elements meshes perfectly with Beineix's view of Paris, a visual and cultural sampling that twists the familiar into new forms: vintage getaway cars and apartments dressed like stage sets, existential thugs slicing baguettes and sadistic villains plugged into French accordion music. More than a time capsule, Diva still sings.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 29, and Saturday, March 1, and at 4 & 7 p.m. Sunday, March 2. Call 313-833-3237.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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