American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Peering into obscure corners of Paris, Jean-Jacques Beineix emerged with an assembly of unlikely, even impossible, characters to populate his "Diva" (1981), a thriller that is more about how it looks than what happens in it. Here is an exhilarating film made for no better purpose than to surprise and fascinate. I remember it at Toronto 1981, where it arrived unknown and unsung and won, as I recall, the festival's first audience award. Now released in a restored print, it glistens in its original magnificence.
The plot is both preposterous and delightful, put together out of elements that seem chosen for their audacity. The central character is a young postman named Jules (Frederic Andrei), who races the streets on his moped, delivering special delivery mail and pausing at an opera recital to secretly record a performance by a tall, black, gorgeous American soprano named Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). He has a professional-quality Nagra recorder hidden in his bag. After the performance, he enters her dressing room with a crowd of well-wishers and steals her elegant white silk gown.
Hawkins is famous for never having entered a recording studio, and we later learn she has never heard her own voice. Now Jules has the only existing tape of her singing; it is priceless, but he wants it only for himself. Unfortunately, he was seen making the recording by two Taiwanese bootleggers, who want to steal it from him. And his problems grow more complex when two gangsters murder a prostitute on a street where he is making a delivery. She has a tape incriminating the chief of police in a sex-slavery ring, and before she dies, she slips the tape into the carrier bag of his moped. Now four deadly crooks are looking for him.
Jules lives in his own way, in his own shadowy industrial space, which is filled with crashed cars and wall paintings of automobiles. Here he listens to the sublime voice. (Fernandez, an established opera diva, did her own singing and created an early-1980s boom for Catalani's opera "La Wally" and its first-act aria.) One day at a record store, Jules spots a Vietnamese nymphet named Alba (Thuy An Luu) shoplifting a 33 rpm record with a cleverly designed art portfolio, which seems to contain only nude photographs of herself.