Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 French soda-pop thriller Diva is as iconically '80s as skinny ties and disco. Slicker than the Stray Cat's greasy pompadours, the film ranks alongside Body Double, The Hunger and Liquid Sky as a monument to the age of neon colors and MTV aesthetics. Diva was such a banquet of eye candy that it even launched its own minigenre, the absurdly titled Cinéma du Look, a sobriquet for the hep French cinema of Luc Besson, Leos Carax and Beineix featuring slick surfaces and alienated characters.
By the standards of the day, before MTV made cavernous, industrial spaces and pretty faces the norm, Diva was hot stuff.
The film's exquisitely harebrained story centers on Jules (Frederic Andrei), an 18-year-old knobby-necked postman with an opera obsession. Jules is consumed with adoration for the American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). A tear glissades down his face as he watches Hawkins perform in Paris. But his passion is not purely on the up-and-up; Jules also is illegally recording the concert, betraying his beloved idol who refuses to commit her voice to tape.
In a crisscrossing plot line, a prostitute drops another audio tape, this one containing some damning information about a prostitution and drug syndicate, into Jules' mail bag. Two thugs are soon in hot pursuit.
Heaping action upon action, Jules' tape is also intertwined in the fantastical domestic milieu of middle-aged Zen master Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) and his shoplifting Vietnamese girlfriend Alba (14-year-old Thuy An Luu), who help him grapple with his thug pursuers.
Both corny and seductive, Diva introduced many younger-generation viewers to "art house" cinema. But art house is a relative term; by Bergman standards, for example, Diva is utter fluff. Held up next to flash, high-concept Euro cinema such as Run, Lola, Run, it is rousing, edgy entertainment. The film's re-release may jolt many into an embarrassing recollection of how they once defined cinematic cool.
A hit with French audiences, when Diva jumped the pond it became a real phenomenon in New York. New York Times film critic Vincent Camby called it "empty though frightfully chic-looking." The heavyweight critics were on the film like white on rice: Roger Ebert called it "brilliant" and Pauline Kael couldn't stop with the Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard references. Diva was a guilty and not-so-guilty pleasure for many, despite the embarrassing moments of jaw-dropping affectation, such as Gorodish cooking in a mask and snorkel and the Sharper Image wave machine in his loft standing in for life's metronomic tick-tock.
Diva boasts some indelible images to be sure: Alba roller-skating through Gorodish's cavernous loft, Cynthia and Jules sitting beneath a white umbrella in Paris' Place de la Concorde. The fetching moments are orchestrated to a score imbued with the romance of Alfredo Catalani's "La Wally" aria and knife-edge suspense in Vladimir Cosma's electronic-heavy compositions.
With its Lolita-inspired Alba, supercool apartments and color-drenched mise-en-scene, something about Diva's plot line seems tailor-made for a certain cool-addicted adolescent. Jules is a teenage fantasy come to life, with his bitching loft digs, his finesse with the Nagra recorder and his playboy's ability to entice a sophisticated black opera star into his bed. The film conveys some of the grandiosity of the teenage mind: colorful, dramatic and prone to lay a musical track down on day-to-day life.
While today's thugs sport goulash accents and a sadistic streak, the hoodlum duo in Diva is almost zany; composed of a hateful punk rocker (Dominique Pinon) with wraparound Ramones shades and a disheveled goof in an Inspector Gadget trench (Gerard Darmon). Add to that potent brew some Taiwanese record-industry types trying to use Jules' bootleg tape to blackmail Cynthia into making a record, and Diva offered a feast of shifty neo-noir badmen hiding their diabolical bad selves behind great eyewear.